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Speech in the Debate on the Bus Services Bill

It is a great honour to speak in this debate and to follow the eloquent and thoughtful contribution made by the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett), but nothing illustrates the north-south divide more than how we pronounce the word Bath. Equally, nothing illustrates it more than how envious we are of the system down here in London, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) mentioned. MPs are often accused by constituents of leading a glamorous life, but we have now spent four hours examining this important Bill. It is been a real honour to do it with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), Labour’s mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester, but that is what real politics looks like: politicians taking the time out to make sure we have good public policy that will benefit our constituents.

It is it hard to say it, but I congratulate the Minister. He was derailed by the small matter of Brexit. I know how frustrated he was that the Bill did not come before the House a few weeks ago, and how committed he is to it. We have some differences over what the regulations, loopholes and guidance will look like, and I shall push him on that later, but he has shown great commitment to the Bill.

I want a better deal for passengers, as does the Minister, I am sure. Indeed, there is no doubt that everybody in this House wants that for their constituents. An effective and efficient transport network supports jobs and underpins our local economies and communities, making travel easier for residents and connecting people with they want to go. I know that to be true from first-hand experience.​
The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) was exactly right when he said that buses are not the social services. I recently visited a major property developer in Greater Manchester called Orbit Developments, which rents out a number of properties to businesses. It is a successful company that does astonishingly good work in providing high-value office accommodation, but staff there said that its rentable values are not the same as in London because people can get around this conurbation within the hour, whereas in Greater Manchester it can take half a day or longer.

Over the past few years there has been significant investment in transport infrastructure in my constituency of Wythenshawe and Sale East. The development of the new bus exchange at Wythenshawe town centre has brought an extra 4,000 passengers a week. At the bus and tram interchange, the tram route opened a year early, and in its first year carried 1.5 million passengers from Manchester city centre to Manchester airport. I am sure the Minister will know that having the airport in my constituency probably maintains around 100,000 jobs in the region. I am fortunate to have the most visited constituency anywhere in the north of England; 25 million people have come to Manchester airport over the past few years.

My constituency will also get High Speed 2, which is fundamental to this debate. Currently, journey times from Manchester airport to Euston are two hours and 25 minutes; that will go down to 59 minutes with the introduction of HS2. We really are beginning to think holistically about how we connect up the country.

On Friday, I will launch the £15 million enterprise link road for airport city north, in my constituency. Look at the added benefit: Amazon has just created 1,500 jobs on the airport city site, along with Virgin, which has 900 jobs, and Vodafone, which has 650 jobs. I am fortunate to represent an extraordinarily successful bit of the conurbation but, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) said, the key thing is how we connect up that conurbation. We need people in other parts of the conurbation to be able to get to the growth areas. There is nothing more important for that than this Bill, which is why I have waited to speak in this debate.

One part of the transport system that has always been ignored is the bus, perhaps because too many of us in this Chamber do not catch one often enough. It has been seen as a Cinderella service compared with the tram or the train, but that should not be the case. Bus services are a critical part of the transport network. Some 80% of all journeys throughout Greater Manchester are taken on the bus, yet, since deregulation, the number of passenger journeys has fallen from 355 million a year to 210 million a year. I cannot speak highly enough of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). Not only was he a great leader of the council for 12 years, between 1984 and 1996, when he battled deregulation, but he has such expertise, showing how deregulation has really disbenefited the economy in Greater Manchester.

There has been a loss of 2.8 million commercial bus miles in the Manchester local authority area since 2006, with around 140,000 such miles lost across Trafford in the same period—those are the two local authority areas that cover my constituency. That worries me because, if the decline continues, people will lose faith in a mode ​of transport that is essential to everyday life. I really do not blame the bus operators, as I have always supported private sector bus companies operating on our streets, but I do not understand why they are operating in a deregulated market. The first priority for companies in that market is to make a profit for shareholders, because they are forced to do so. That is how the market works, but something is fundamentally wrong if bus usage continues to fall. It cannot be good for operators and it is definitely not good for passengers. That brings me to the heart of the issue: the failure of a deregulated system to deliver a bus network that works in favour of the passengers.

I catch the bus all the time from my house to my constituency office, to Manchester for a night out, and to the Etihad to watch Manchester City. When doing some constituency work switching on the Christmas lights in Sale Moor village one Sunday evening, my wife and I caught the 41 First bus. The fare was £2.50 each, so it cost us £5 to get one way. Unfortunately, there no return bus. It was a different operator, so we spent £5 coming back—£10 for a 4 or 5-mile round journey. For an extra pound or two, we should have got a taxi. That route is a particular pinch point in my constituency. First Bus runs seven 41 buses an hour, so Stagecoach has now decided to compete down that route with five 143 buses an hour. We now have 12 buses an hour going through a real pinch point in Sale Moor village. Each company is just trying to run the other off the road, which is not beneficial for passengers.

Deregulation creates a confusing picture. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) summed it up by mentioning that there are 22 different bus types and 140 different ticketing systems in the area. I talked to people from Transport for Greater Manchester, who could not tell me the best system. People need a mathematics degree to work out how best to travel around our conurbation. There is also no maximum cap. As an MP catching the bus to my constituency office and the tram to MediaCityUK, Manchester city centre or Manchester airport—one of my constituency’s major employers—a constituency Friday can be a complicated day, and the costs rack up and up every time. If it is difficult for me, it must be much more difficult for my constituents. There is an integration issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington pointed out. People have to pay a premium for tickets covering two or more companies.

So what can be done to fix the issue? Thankfully, the Bill is the first thing. I thank the Secretary of State for bringing the Bill to the House. I believe that it will go some way to remedying the structural deficiencies in the bus market across Greater Manchester. As has been pointed out, the last Labour Government tried to take some measures, but the Transport Act 2000 did not go far enough, including measures that could not really be introduced because of complications. That could be the failure of this Bill, especially if we get the guidance wrong, so it is important that its provisions are passed, particularly the option for the newly elected mayor to consider bus franchising after a public consultation. The franchise system here in London, as I have pointed out, is second to none.

It is vital that there are no onerous obligations or hoops for transport authorities to go through when considering the case for franchising services. I really ​would like the Minister to reassure us about that. Yes, it is right that there should be a tough assessment process and a consultation period so that the mayor can make an informed decision, but let us not make the mistakes of the 2000 Act by issuing unworkable regulations and guidance. It is vital that they are clear, transparent and unambiguous, and that they fully reflect the spirit of devolution. I acknowledge the Minister’s commitment to follow through with what was agreed in the 2014 Greater Manchester agreement. Let that not be undone by regulations and guidance.

The provisions in the Bill have the potential to improve significantly transport for residents of and visitors to Greater Manchester, and the option to explore bus franchising is a potential game changer for our city region. A better co-ordinated, more stable network is essential if people are to have confidence in using buses and public transport more widely.

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