HL Deb 27 November 2002 vol 641 cc742-4

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take in view of the fact that, outside London, bus passenger numbers have declined by 1.5 per cent for the last year for which figures are available, while the targets set in their 10-year plan predicted an increase.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, bus patronage is continuing to increase nationally, following decades of decline. At this early stage in the 10-year plan, most of the growth is in London; but some other areas are also achieving significant growth, especially where Quality Partnerships are providing imaginative solutions to the problems of congestion. Projected expenditure by local authorities on bus priorities should make a substantial contribution to bus patronage over the next few years. The Government are working with local authorities and the industry to identify how to reproduce the best results more widely.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, are the Government actively considering proposals from the bus industry for a pump-priming fund to develop new services outside town centres? Given current levels of traffic congestion, does the Minister not agree, in principle at least, that investment in measures to reduce reliance on the private car can only be a good thing?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I can answer yes to both questions. Certainly we are receptive to any suggestions from the bus industry or from local authorities—and very often from both of them together—for new ways of increasing bus ridership. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, is of course right on her second point.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, can the Minister clarify the Secretary of State's announcement yesterday that a czar for transport is to be appointed? What will be the czar's role? How will he be more successful than all the other czars the Government have appointed in the past few years?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have a personal difficulty with the word "czar" which takes me back before 1917 and in a direction in which I would not wish to go. No, I do not have anything to add to what the Secretary of State said yesterday.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the disparity between the increase in bus patronage in London and the much slower increase or even decrease elsewhere may have something to do with the fact that politicians in this House and in another place show little interest in the subject because they very rarely use buses except in London? Does he also agree that there is much to be said for introducing franchise services—as have operated for some years in London—across the country? Would that not increase the stability and frequency of bus services outside London?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I thought that my noble friend Lord Berkeley was a cyclist, not a bus user—and very brave, too. However, one of the reasons why bus ridership is increasing in London rather than in the rest of the country is that Conservative governments privatised bus services outside London. They did not quite dare to do that inside London. Regulated bus services are indeed more efficient. There are other reasons, of course.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, I must first declare an interest. I am a consultant to the Confederation of Passenger Transport and chairman of the Bus Appeals Body, the consumer body for the bus industry in this country. Does my noble friend agree that the picture is much more patchy than is suggested by the 1.5 per cent figure and that there has been a marked growth in bus ridership in areas where there is close co-operation between local authorities and bus operators in bringing forward Quality Partnerships? Is there not a case for placing Quality Partnerships on a statutory basis so as to achieve an overall improvement in bus usage?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend is entirely right. Quality Partnerships are working remarkably well in ensuring passenger growth. In Cheltenham, the five services covered have had increases of between 2 per cent and 9 per cent. In Greater Manchester, with more than 50 partnerships, there has been 8 per cent passenger growth in the Bolton-Leigh corridor. I could produce similar figures for Harlow, Nottingham, Tyne and Wear, the West Midlands and elsewhere. Although statutory procedures cannot be ruled out for ever, the voluntary arrangements are working very well at the moment. We are keen and we have the resources to extend those partnerships.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, Kick Start is a proposal to pump-prime the private sector during a 10-year contract to take over the running of marginally profitable bus services outside London. We must concentrate our attention on those services as they are losing passengers rapidly. Have the Government considered the proposal and is there any answer?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, the Government are considering the proposal. Clearly, this is potentially a useful way forward. In rural areas car ownership is still rising. To that extent, bus services are, so to speak, swimming upstream.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the double-decker bus is much loved, a draw to tourism and a very efficient way of moving people around our cities? Can the Minister give your Lordships any assurances as to its future and, if not, why not?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, why was the European aspect of the matter not brought out? Surely what the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is saying is that he objects to the flexi buses that have been introduced in London that appear to be working rather well. He must object to them because they come from Europe. I am very fond of double-decker buses. As a member of the GLC transport committee in the 1980s I was instrumental in ensuring that the Routemasters were not scrapped for ever. I am glad to see that they are still with us.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, speaking as a parliamentary Cross-Bench London bus rider, does the noble Lord perhaps agree that people in the country have to carry more parcels on buses? Bus use is declining because people need cars in which to carry their parcels. In London you can do less shopping more often.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am not sure. That makes some sense. I quite see that rural bus passengers use buses for shopping, but my experience as a London bus user is that people use buses for shopping in London as well.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, is the well-known man from Clapham now a bus rider rather than a bus passenger?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I used to use the word "ridership" when I was on the GLC'. I am sorry to find myself using the word "patronage". That is like talking about customers rather than passengers, which I think is deplorable.

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