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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

Transport secretary Alistair Darling has made increasing bus provision a priority and transport minister John Spellar told MPs that this week he had a meeting with the LGA and bus operators.

He had asked the local authorities - including the LGA passenger transport executive group - to form a joint committee to investigate problems. There was a very mixed picture across the country, with increased bus usage in some areas and declining use in others. There were different problems in rural areas, which was why government was considering flexible routing in those areas, for example, a greater provision of demand-led community transport.

However, both the secretary of state and the transport minister ruled out a return to the regulatory regime before deregulation of bus operators and services in 1986, despite calls from senior Labour MPs Joan Walley and Chris Mullin, a minister in the former DTLR.

Another former Labour minister Graham Stringer said the competition authorities were often a barrier to improving the co-ordination and integration of bus services. In the north of the Greater Manchester conurbation, First Group almost had a monopoly, resulting in people having to pay 20% higher fares.

'The competition authorities do not investigate such issues, yet when local authorities want to introducee quality bus partnerships, the competition authorities perversely say that that would be anti-competitive', added Mr Stringer.

Mr Spellar said he had already held discussions with the Office of Fair Trading because one of the complaints of the local authorities and bus companies has been that the competition regulations - as interpreted by the OFT - were preventing them from engaging in sensible co-operation in the interests of providing improved services. Legislation provided for exemptions in such areas. Discussions with the OFT were doing away with misconceptions.

'Many people certainly used to believe that the OFT would take a particular position; in some cases people did not even bother to ask the OFT what its position was. That dialogue that is now being undertaken shows a more proactive approach by the OFT, which is to be welcomed', added the minister.

Mr Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, said bus companies such as Stagecoach and GoAhead in his city were becoming 'increasingly ruthless in their search for profits and increasingly brazen in their demand for public subsidies'. They were abusing their near monopoly position to run small operators off the road.

'Has not the time come to consider re-regulating the bus services with a view to having them take into account the public interest as well as their own profits?' he asked.

Mr Spellar said it would not be right to return to the pre-1986 regime because it would distract the industry from focusing on imroving the provision and quality of services to attract more customers.

'The Transport Act 2000 gave local authorities various powers to influence provision. We will consider specific changes if necessary to overcome particular problems. Forexample, we will soon be consulting on proposals to remove obstacles to registering flexibly routed local bus services', added Mr Spellar.

He said the new joint committee would work through problems to ensure that a proper network wa maintained across the bus system. 'We should also recognise the substantial increase in the cab trade in many areas, which is providing a flexible transport service and may be more appropriate. In some areas it can be funded from the public sector', he added.

Helen Jackson, Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, said before 1986 buses were sensibly regulated and fares sensibly organisedso that there was integration of fares and services between buses, local trains and trams. People now got irritated when one operator can increase fares, throwing into confusion all the integrated ticketing arrangements that existed with other operators.

Mr Darling said: 'I am aware that some councils can do and have done a lot to improve bus services, rural as well as urban, whereas councils in other areas are not doing so. That is one of the issues over the next few months to see whether we can improve the level of bus provision, not only in rural areas but in those which are not well served under the present system'.

Hansard 2 July 2002: Column 67-71;75-78

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