George Freeman responds to bus services debate

29th October 2019

George Freeman responds to a Westminster Hall debate on rural bus services.

Thank you for that, Dame Cheryl. I echo those sentiments and thanks.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the debate and thank him for raising this issue. He now has a meeting in the diary with my noble Friend Baroness Vere, who leads on buses in the Department. It is an absolute pleasure for me to respond to the debate, partly because, as a rural MP for Mid Norfolk, I share many of the hon. Gentleman’s frustrations at the neglect of rural buses over decades, but also because, as the newly appointed Minister for the future of transport, with responsibility in the Department for a new portfolio and leading on tackling disconnection, decarbonisation, digitalisation and innovation in the private and public transport sectors, I welcome the chance to speak to the issues that he has raised and to highlight some of the things that we are doing to turbocharge the improvement of rural connectivity.

The hon. Gentleman and I, and indeed the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), recognise, as I think all rural MPs do, that public transport and particularly buses in rural areas are essential to connectivity to the workplace, but also for access to public services, particularly healthcare and education. Often in these debates, however, those of us who bemoan the lack of investment and support for rural buses over the years forget that there is still a very substantial service. There are 4 billion bus journeys a year.

Buses remain the most popular form of public transport. Overall, passenger satisfaction remains consistently high, at 85%. I happen to think that the figures are probably higher in urban areas than in some of the rural areas, such as Mid Norfolk and Westmorland and Lonsdale. None the less, I place it on the record that buses are popular and are vital for the connectivity of rural communities and, of course, vital for productivity and general economic wellbeing. For the many people visiting areas such as the Lake district, buses are key.

For the first time in my memory, we have a Prime Minister who has been a Mayor—it is certainly the first time we have had a Prime Minister who makes model buses—and who actually has a passion for public transport, and for places, buses and connectivity, which is all to the good. It is for that reason that I am here today to signal the levelling up of our ambition for rural connectivity. Indeed, the first request that the Prime Minister made to me when he asked me to take on this role was to drive better innovation and faster connectivity, to reach out to those people and places left behind, which is a subject the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and I have both spoken about and written on widely.

That is why I am delighted that in the last few weeks the Government have announced a new £220 million bus deal and committed to a long-term bus strategy. We may say that is long overdue, but it is happening none the less, and I am delighted. Crucially, it will focus on the passengers who rely on the services, rather than the providers, and we will also look at how national and local government, and the private and public sectors, can work together to improve value for money and to get a better deal from not only the additional money, but the money that we have already put in.

Each year the Department for Transport provides £250 million in direct revenue support for bus services in England via the bus service operators grant. Without that, fares would increase and marginal services would disappear in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine. Around £43 million of that grant is paid directly to local authorities, rather than to bus operators, to support socially necessary bus services in their areas that are not commercially viable. The Government recognise the importance of these services, which are essential for rural connectivity and for supplementing the often patchy private provision of, for example, evening or Sunday services, which may not be available.

To improve current bus services or to restore lost services, the Government will pay an extra £30 million of new funding to local authorities to help tackle that problem, in addition to the £1 billion a year currently spent by local authorities on concessionary bus passes. We also committed to protecting the national bus travel concession, which benefits around 10 million people, allowing free, off-peak local travel anywhere in England. That concession provides older and disabled people with greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community, and enables access to facilities in their local area and helps them to keep in touch with family and friends.

In policy making, it is sometimes easy to overlook the essential nature of rural public transport for basic, functioning communities and connectivity. Living in a great city such as London during the week, one sees transport at our fingertips, on demand when we want it. In rural areas such as the hon. Gentleman’s and mine, it is not like that. No one expects it to be identical—we want diversity—but we have to recognise that connectivity is fundamental to a functioning society and economy. That is why we are going further and why we need to be more innovative.

Digitalisation and basic telephony now make a whole range of new services possible. Demand-responsive transport services have been used for some time to replace infrequent traditional services that do not meet a local community’s specific needs, or to get services closer to where people live at a time that is convenient for them—and we are about to go further and faster. We will start to look at places, counties and districts and ask where the people who most need to be moved around actually are, and at what time of day, and whether one bus running infrequently down one road is the right way to do that. Could we use technology to provide a more mixed package of lift-share, car-share, community bus and traditional and modern bus services?

To trial on-demand services in rural and suburban areas, the Government have established a new £20 million fund as part of that bus deal. I am delighted to tell the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that, as part of that, I will be championing innovation in rural areas. As part of the future mobility zones that I am putting in place, we will look specifically at rural mobility, not just at inner-city and urban mobility, where so much of the innovation has tended to be.

The hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to the many people up and down rural Britain who contribute to community transport and support their communities. I echo that. Approximately 8 million passenger trips take place in rural areas every year, which has a huge impact on encouraging growth and reducing isolation. Community transport operators can access the bus service operators grant to help keep fares down and to run a wider network of services than they could otherwise afford to run. Community transport spend from this grant was substantially above £3 million in 2018-19.

Data, technology and innovation are making possible a whole range of new services, which is why access to digitalisation for rural bus services is a crucial part of what we are doing next. Passengers rightly expect easy access to comprehensive and high-quality information about local bus services. People want to know where they can catch a bus, when it will come, what the fare will be and how they can pay. With more and more people having smartphones in their pockets, it is surely possible for us to run a more digital and demand-responsive service.

The bus data powers in the Bus Services Act 2017 will go further than the partnership provisions, requiring all bus operators of local services in England to open up real-time information on routes, timetables, fares and tickets to passengers from next year. These improvements aim to remove uncertainty in bus journeys, improve journey planning and help passengers secure best-value tickets.

However, we will go further. Notwithstanding potential electoral disruptions, I shortly expect to announce future mobility zones, our flagship project for supporting innovation in future transport. Crucially, I will be looking at rural as well as urban areas. We will look at pilots on demand-responsive services such as those in Lincolnshire and in the Tees Valley, which was announced this week by the Mayor of Teesside, Ben Houchen.

I will close by congratulating the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and genuinely thanking him for securing the debate, which has given us the chance to raise these issues. His points on the northern powerhouse were well made, and I will pass those on to the Minister responsible. The truth is that there is no single solution, and we should not seek some magic bullet. He is right to highlight that rural areas demand a different solution from urban areas. Equally, he is right to highlight that while cities such Manchester—the heartbeat of the northern powerhouse—are growing and investing, we need to look at nearby rural areas, to make sure that we are not creating a two-tier transport system.

The commitment from the Government and myself is clear: to maintain and improve local public transport. We also commit to go further, using this £200 million bus package to improve and support innovation in rural public transport, so that we have a mixed economy that works for the benefit of communities and businesses in rural areas. The Government are 100% committed to that. The Prime Minister is committed to that. I hope that we get a chance after the next election to put that into practice.

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