MP Writes - We’re missing the buses

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I HAVE written in the past about the inadequacy of bus services in the town, and how they can be improved.

Following the cuts to bus services earlier this year, I tabled a petition to the House of Commons.

I was asked by Parliament’s Transport Select Committee to respond to its investigation on bus services in England following the Government’s financial plans.

I was keen to provide my views, but more important than that, I was keen to see that people in Hartlepool who had been affected by the service cuts took the opportunity to make their views known.

The Transport Select Committee published its report last Thursday. It is pleasing that the views of Hartlepool residents are all over the report.

They really rose to the challenge and I thank them for doing so. The Select Committee state, quite rightly, that bus services are vital to some people to enable them to have access to employment, education or social and caring work.

The report is full of Hartlepool examples where access to college, or employment, is no longer possible. The Select Committee concludes its report by stating that “The Government wills the end of better and cheaper bus services; there is not much evidence that it is willing to provide the means.”

The Committee’s report states that by June 2011, over 70 per cent of English local authorities had decided to reduce funding for supported or subsidised bus services.

In the main, rural, evening and Sunday bus services have been affected the most, which ties in with the experience of this town, although Hartlepool is one of only two councils in the country to withdraw all of its subsidised services.

Many people will blame the council solely for this decision. I don’t run the council, the local authority will decide its own priorities as it sees fit.

But in a harsh climate where Government funding to the local authority has been slashed by a quarter, there are no winners.

The Transport Select Committee’s report recognises this, by concluding that: “The Government cannot wash its hands of any responsibility for enabling this to happen.”

The Committee states that the Department for Transport has to put its full weight behind helping councils find solutions to the social and economic impacts of the disappearance, like in Hartlepool, of the only public transport that might be available in some places.

But the whole business model of providing bus services is not working. We’ve moved from a position 25 years ago when the red “Corporation” buses were dominant in our streets to a position where private companies now provide the service.

The whole bus market was deregulated by Margaret Thatcher in 1985. The intention was to provide increased competition and raise standards and quality.

But in the intervening quarter of a century it hasn’t worked. We’ve replaced one type of monopoly – the local council running the buses – with another, and whereas previously the council were concerned with the social good and the provision of a comprehensive bus service, Stagecoach are merely concerned with widening profit margins and enhancing shareholder value.

I don’t have a problem with private companies and profit – I would like to see more private companies in Hartlepool making greater profits and enhancing the wealth of the town.

But the market in bus services clearly isn’t working and, like the banks, when markets become reckless and break down, it should be the role of the state to intervene.

Buses are not being run for the interests of passengers, a point I have raised with successive Governments.

Re-regulation should be introduced.