Bus Services: North-east England
Volume 704: debated on Wednesday 24 November 2021
(Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I start by wholeheartedly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate. From the many colleagues who are in the Chamber, we can see how much support there is for a debate on this very important subject.
Nevertheless, we should not be having this debate. I and many colleagues from the north-east have spoken many times about the lack of effective and convenient bus services in our region, and I have often spoken about the huge disparity between the cost of bus tickets in Newcastle and the cost of bus tickets in London. I have said it before and I will say it again, until it stops being true: for £1.55 in London, I can get up to two buses to carry me anywhere across the capital for over 30 miles; but in Newcastle, £1.55 will not even get me three stops up the West Road. If I want to go to beautiful Ashington, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), which is only 18 miles away, a single ticket will cost me £6.
More than that, while here in London we can see when buses are coming, in Newcastle, at Eldon Square bus station, there is a sign that says, “Working with bus operators to bring you real-time travel information.” That sign has been there for years—they have been working together for years—and we still do not know when buses are leaving from where. That has a real impact on the friction of taking a bus journey; it reduces the useability, functionality and accessibility of buses for my constituents.
As well as comparing with London, we also need to compare with the unfortunately often more convenient and cheaper alternative that my constituents have: the car. As we recently saw at COP26, we want to move away from car journeys towards more journeys on public transport. However, it is cheaper for a family of four to take a car into the centre of Newcastle to go and see the latest Peppa Pig film—I am sure the Prime Minister will approve of that, given that most of my constituents cannot afford the 700-mile round trip to Peppa Pig World—than it is for them to get a bus there and back.
In Newcastle, our buses are critical all the same. Many people rely on them to get to work or school, but the fares that they have to pay are prohibitive. The extortionate bus prices are part of the cost of living crisis facing my constituents and many others across the north-east. Can the Minister tell us when the Government will level down fares in the north-east?
My constituents are not even guaranteed a good service. As we have heard, our bus services are facing rising fuel and maintenance costs and labour shortages, leaving passengers to face enormous disruption. Pay disputes are potentially leading to industrial action across the region and, as we have heard, Transport North East estimates that there will be a 20% reduction in bus mileage from next April.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for that intervention; she is absolutely right. As well as the challenge of climate change, the quality of air in Newcastle is of great concern to my constituents and hers. It is not rocket science—the technology is there to have cleaner, greener buses. The Secretary of State for Transport keeps on saying that there are thousands of such buses about to come on to our streets, but we have yet to see them in Newcastle. That is part of the investment that we need to see.
The promises of investment simply do not materialise for the north-east. Speaking of the most recent Budget, Lucy Winskell, the chair of the North East LEP, said that “government has announced significant transport investment across the rest of the North but not in the North East.”
Whereas other parts of the country received hundreds of millions of pounds in funding, with some even receiving over £1 billion, the north-east lost out yet again.
Before deregulation in the ’80s, we had a transport network. Some of us are old enough to remember that people could travel across the region, from bus to Metro, on one transfer ticket. That system worked brilliantly, partially because we had control over our buses. When Margaret Thatcher privatised buses, she knew that an entirely private bus service would not be good enough for London. Why was that thought to be good enough for the north-east? We need control over our buses, which is the only way that my constituents and the people of the north-east will get a fair transport deal. As we heard earlier, the North East Joint Transport Committee recently published its bus service improvement plan, setting out a major programme of investment worth £804 million over three years. I want the Minister to tell us that she will be supporting that plan and the buses that my constituents deserve.