Bus services for young people
Westminster Hall Debate, Bus Services for the young, 17th April 2013
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, for what I believe is the first time. It is also a pleasure to respond to the contribution made by my hon.
Friend Fabian Hamilton. I noticed that on the Annunciato r screen he was down as the Member for Midlothian—I did not know that Midlothian was in Yorkshire and Humber, but we learn something every day. My hon. Friend Sarah Champion was eloquent in her exposition of the needs of young people, particularly in south Yorkshire, and of the need to include young people in the decision-making process on bus services, which is something to which I will return later.
For all of us here today, the question of whether to catch a bus is a matter of genuine choice, because every Member of the House of Commons has, I believe, the means to buy a car. For us, whether to use public transport can be an environmental choice. We have the luxury of that position, but for many the choice is to catch a bus or to stay put and not travel at all. The option of private transport still does not exist for many of the elderly, the young, the disabled and the unemployed, and for different reasons. For those people, the bus is essential for getting to the shops, to school, to training, to work or even to that important job interview.
In the plethora of cuts announced by the coalition Government, it is often the cuts least talked about that do the greatest damage. In 2010, the Government cut by 28% the funding to councils for local transport and removed the ring-fencing from funding passed to councils from the Department for Communities and Local Government. In addition, the bus service operators grant was cut by 20%. The combined cuts have resulted in the removal of £500 million from support for bus services. With that level of cuts, it is no surprise that many people who use bus services believe that services have deteriorated in vast swathes of the country. To make matters worse, the cost of catching a bus has increased by double the rate of inflation in the past year alone.
As things stand, and if the cuts continue, it will become harder and harder for many communities to sustain the social mix that is essential to maintaining the lifeblood of, in particular, our rural areas. If those who cannot afford private transport have to move out of their villages and hamlets, all we will have left is lifeless commuter belts. The problem exists not just in the rural south. My constituency is made up of isolated villages and towns on the edge of the two major urban areas of Barnsley and Sheffield. There is often a misunderstanding in the House about rural areas: they do not belong just to the leafy home counties, as metropolitan areas can be made up of significant expanses of rural landmass. South Yorkshire is a good example, and indeed parts of west Yorkshire still have that status. It is the poor and the young who feel the effects of worsening bus services the most, and in the context of high and rising unemployment the problem has become acute.
In my constituency, which is the second wealthiest— for want of a better word—in Sheffield, the rise in unemployment among the young has been very rapid over the past three years; indeed, I think that the figure has increased by 100%. The increase has been far higher elsewhere in south Yorkshire, particularly in areas such as Rotherham, the Dearne, Barnsley East and Barnsley Central. Unemployment is rising among the young in those places, as it is nationally, and it is not hard, therefore, to imagine the difficulties faced by youngsters in the villages in my constituency.
Young people in villages such as Silkstone, Ingbirchworth, Penistone town, Oughtibridge and High Green are increasingly feeling the pinch because of the
cost of bus services—the frequency of service can also be a problem. To access most public services, and to go to work or college or to engage in training, young people in my constituency must travel either to Barnsley or Sheffield, or even perhaps Huddersfield, Wakefield or Leeds. If they have to go over the border, so to speak, into west Yorkshire, the problem becomes particularly acute because they then deal with services run by two different integrated transport authorities. A young person—a local scout leader—frequently contacts me to tell me about the problems he experiences getting to school in Wakefield from, believe it or not, Penistone.
Young people in my area face journeys of many miles on services that are often infrequent, which is not ideal for meeting their needs, and very costly. A good example of the issues faced by many young people in rural and semi-rural areas are those encountered by my ex-part-time caseworker, Alex Guest. He is an intelligent, well-qualified graduate and a great employee, but he lives in the small town of Penistone, which, although in the Barnsley metropolitan district, is 12 miles from Barnsley town centre and 20 miles from the centre of Sheffield. His appointment to the job meant that he had to travel from Penistone to my office in Stocksbridge, which is only four miles away as the crow flies. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East pointed out, Barnsley has done some work on the difficulties that its young people face in getting to work. Penistone was highlighted in the report it produced, and Alex is a real-life example of why that report has been so important.
The distance between Stocksbridge and Alex’s home in Penistone is only four miles, but the bus service between the two towns is so bad that he could not get to my office to begin work at the usual start time of 9 am. That is impossible on a bus. He could not start work before 10 am and had to leave by 4 pm or face not being able to get home. He could not take a job four miles away from his house with an employer in the next town—a major employer, as there is still a big steel industry there—unless the job was flexible enough to allow him to work between 10 am and 4 pm. Fortunately, I was able to offer him the flexibility to ensure that he could work his hours around the bus service. It was possible for me to do that because he was part-time, but had I offered him a full-time post, I am not sure that I could have allowed him to take up the job offer permanently.
Unfortunately for many other young people, the flexibility that I could offer Alex is not always there and the chance to work is therefore denied them, as is the chance to earn an income and to improve themselves and their skills and prospects. In Alex’s case, I could offer him only part-time work, but the job he did for me gave him the experience, confidence and knowledge to go elsewhere. He now works full-time for another MP—a traitor, I have to say—who is sitting not far away from me: she took my employee from me, but I wish him all the best in his new job. Alex Guest is now contributing and paying his way in society, but I am not sure that that would necessarily be the case if I had not been able to offer him such flexibility.
Some local authorities are doing their best to mitigate the impact of Government cuts on bus services, especially in relation to young people. Praise will be given where it
is due. I know that the Minister is an advocate for public transport from our various discussions on panels and in other contexts before the general election, when the Liberal Democrats were not in coalition with the Conservatives. I will put it on the record that the Minister helped to get the Sheffield bus partnership up and running, and we are ready to pay tribute to that work. I am told that the new bus partnership in Sheffield has improved things—not massively, but it has improved the situation—but that work does not go far enough.
The South Yorkshire integrated transport authority, with the support of better bus area funding, has introduced a scheme under which apprentices aged between 16 and 24 who are claiming jobseeker’s allowance can have free travel for up to three months. Young people in the same age group who are starting work that is expected to last at least 13 weeks and who have claimed JSA for at least 13 weeks can have free travel for four weeks. It also intends to improve the service by reducing the qualification threshold, so that the service can be extended to more young apprentices.
The South Yorkshire integrated transport authority is working closely with the four youth councils in south Yorkshire, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said. It is holding a young people’s bus summit with 40 young people next week, on 27 April, in Sheffield. The themes to be discussed, which I think she mentioned, are affordability, accessibility, availability and acceptability, which is an important and often overlooked point about bus services. That event alone demonstrates just how important bus services are for young people in south Yorkshire, an area which outsiders often forget is largely rural or semi-rural, like large parts of the rest of Yorkshire.
However, for our every success and step forward, there always seems to me to be a retreat. Part of Barnsley council’s groundbreaking and innovative approach was the Mi card, which, among other things, allowed all under-18s free travel on buses in the borough. Unfortunately, because of the council’s need to make savings, a charge of 30p per journey now applies. That means that the very good principle that we have extended to elderly people and those over 60 has been withdrawn from a section of the population that, in my view, needs it more than others, as they desperately need to find work and opportunities to extend their education and skills.
Although the schemes and efforts of south Yorkshire local authorities are welcome, they are often being put in place despite the Government, not because of them, which is the key problem. The facts, which were mentioned earlier, are that a third of bus journeys are made by people who are eligible for a concessionary fare, and two thirds of all journeys on public transport are made by bus. Those two statistics alone show us why we need frequent and affordable bus services. It is no good having a bus pass if there is no bus to catch, and it is no good having a bus if it is too expensive to catch for those of us who rely on buses. For young people, the latter point is key.
As some Members may be aware—the Minister is well aware of what has long been my position—I am big proponent of re-regulating the buses. He was a member of the Local Transport Public Bill Committee that discussed re-regulation. The Local Transport Act 2008 went some way towards re-regulation, but the quality contracts on offer have not particularly taken root, partly because of the risks involved in integrated transport authorities wanting to take up the option, and also because of the failure of the Government to underwrite some of those risks to get beyond that first hurdle.
Re-regulation would give the rest of the country, particularly metropolitan areas such as Sheffield, Barnsley and Leeds, what London already enjoys and has never had taken away from it. However, the Government are determined that any area that pursues a quality contract should be excluded from better bus area funding. There is therefore not only an unwillingness—I do not know whether it is ideological—to support integrated transport authorities that want to develop quality contracts, but a penalty for developing one. That is wrong and has put many integrated transport authorities, such as the one serving my area, in the impossible position of having to accept the terms and condition placed on them by the Department for Transport to access any extra funding.
We need more public control and accountability in relation to our bus services, and those services need to take into consideration the people who use them and the role of reliable, frequent bus services that are environmentally friendly, have full disabled access and are clean and warm for the people using them. We all know that such services can play a big role in helping local economies to grow and improve, not least because, to return to the focus of this debate, such services are critical in getting young people where they need to be.
Above all, we need to recognise that if we fail our young people by not providing them with the bus services they need, their general opportunities through life will be curtailed. The damage done to young people who cannot access the opportunities that they need when they are 16, 17 or 18—the limitation on their mobility at that age—might have lifelong impacts. I am part of the generation who suffered in the recessions of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many people of my generation have never fully recovered from the damage done to them by the very high levels of unemployment in areas such as south Yorkshire in the early 1980s, when opportunities in the steel and coal industries disappeared.
If we do the same to this generation of young people, I would not blame them for turning round to those of us responsible for giving them opportunities, and saying, “You failed us.” I therefore look to the coalition Government and the Minister for a response and a positive affirmation not only that young people are expected to find work and to improve their chances by attending further education and training opportunities, but that the coalition Government recognise their responsibility in making sure that young people can access those opportunities.