Richard Holden – 2022 Speech on Bus Route Consultation

The speech made by Richard Holden, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in the House of Commons on 20 December 2022.

It is a pleasure to take the last Adjournment debate before Christmas. In addition to thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), I would like to thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for their contributions today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford on securing another opportunity to speak on the behalf of his constituents in Watford. I know he works relentlessly to champion the issues that matter to them, and local bus services are part of the suite of issues that he regularly brings to the House and to Ministers.

I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Hertfordshire a couple of weeks ago, when I met Councillor Phil Bibby, the executive member for highways and transport, and experienced at first hand some of the great work that is going on within the county to improve bus services. I was delighted to see Arriva’s new depot in Stevenage, which will house its new zero-emission bus fleet just up the road, and to learn more about the HertsLynx demand-responsive transport service, providing vital connectivity for rural villages in the north of the county, although those are admittedly not so close to my hon. Friend’s constituency. These are things that could make a huge and positive difference in Hertfordshire and elsewhere.

The Government are clear that bus services are vital to ensuring that people can access work and education, as well as crucial services such as healthcare, as my hon. Friend said. We also recognise the fundamental importance of ensuring that people can stay connected to their local communities. I would like to address one of the issues around late cancellations and poor communications from bus companies. I am supportive of the general public being better informed about changes to local bus services, and my Department is working with local authorities and operators to seek improvements in that area. We recognise that the sector is facing challenges at the moment, but we expect operators to provide the services that they have advertised. It is unacceptable when they do not do so, especially when they do not give proper notice of those changes. That is one reason why I am so keen to welcome this debate. Ensuring that passengers who rely solely on local bus services are easily able to provide their views to bus operators and local transport authorities when changes to services are due to be made is a key aspect of the reforms to bus services in England that we set out in the national bus strategy, one of a plethora of measures we are bringing forward.

Crucially, we want local authorities to have greater oversight of bus service provision so that they can work more closely with bus operators to ensure the provision of bus networks that meet the needs of local people. That includes having an element of flexibility in respect of bus service plans. When things change, we need the operators to be able to change with them.

My Department is ready and willing to work with local transport authorities and operators as they work together as part of their bus service improvement plans. I know that Hertfordshire County Council is looking forward to establishing an enhanced partnership with local operators. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Watford mentioned the £29.7 million that has already been allocated to the council.

The issue of consultation is particularly important. I really do hope that through the enhanced partnership we will see the operators working more closely with the service providers. That will really help provision. I urge my hon. Friend to keep pressing the council and his local operators on that.

In its guidance on enhanced partnerships and BSIPs, the Department has highlighted the importance of councils and operators working with bus-user groups and local groups when they consider how to improve services and make sure that passengers are well informed about changes to local bus routes. There will always be changes and, hopefully, improvements—that is what the plans are there to deliver.

We have provided a capacity support grant to all local transport authorities to develop and deliver their enhanced partnerships. In addition, we are providing capacity funding to those areas that did not receive funding through the BSIP process, to ensure that they have better enhanced partnerships. Whether or not they have received the full large grant or have that working relationship, we are there for them in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in the constituencies of other Members. The Department will also provide guidance and training for teams through the planned new bus centre of excellence.

The national bus strategy sets out a requirement for local transport authorities to create a new passenger charter—I think my hon. Friend will be interested in this —as part of developing their BSIPs. The charters are intended to give bus users the rights to receive certain standards of service, including in respect of punctuality, the proportion of services operated, information and, crucially, redress, an issue that many Members from all parties have raised with me since I took over this brief. I hope that other councils, as well as my hon. Friend’s, hear the call for better communication.

One of the issues we face is the recovery from covid. In August, we confirmed that we would continue providing funding under the bus services recovery grant to help to protect bus services until the end of March 2023. We have also taken additional steps to prevent significant reductions to bus services. As a condition of receiving funding, bus operators are required to maintain a minimum service floor of 80% compared with pre-covid service levels. We are also working to get services and, crucially, ridership back up to provide the longer-term stability that people need.

We know that driver shortages have been a major issue and we are working with transport industry bodies such as the Confederation of Passenger Transport. We recently held a summit on the issue that I was delighted to attend. Things like that are important. We must work to really drive home things such as the “Thank You Driver” campaign. We must encourage people to take up really important opportunities. I am really keen to continue to support such work. My hon. Friend mentioned the DVSA; I have already prioritised tests for bus drivers to help to speed up the process and provide us with valuable assistance in tackling some of the serious issues around driver shortages. I continue to ensure that that is prioritised, even as we face difficulties and strike action.

I know that in Hertfordshire more broadly the enhanced partnership process is slightly different. The council has responsibility for the registration of bus services rather than the Office of the Traffic Commissioner. However, the statutory 42-day notice period is particularly important. I hope that those involved can look into more enhanced ways to communicate with local people.

In closing, I congratulate my hon. Friend again. The BSIP is a major step forward, as is the £2 single fare that we are set to introduce throughout the country before the House returns in January. I look forward to that. There are undoubtedly challenges facing the sector, but we are committed to working with it to address them. I look forward to engaging with colleagues from all parties going forward.

Finally, ahead of the Christmas break I thank my team in the Department, my team in Parliament, my team in North West Durham, the House staff, Members from all sides and you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wish all Members a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.