Saturday, March 31, 2018

This, apparently, means nothing to me...

Alright, so here I am in a surprisingly hip hotel close to an airport - indeed, it’s called Moxy - so evidently I am off somewhere. And that is indeed true, although exactly where will have to wait until tomorrow. For now though, I am in Vienna, the city of the waltz, of coffee culture, and of one of the best political jokes ever.

A man is in a Viennese cafe and, turning to his friend, says, “I hear that there’ll be a revolution in Russia soon.”. His friend scoffs, “And who’s going to start that then, Herr Lenin and Herr Trotsky sitting in the corner there?”.

In the past, I found Vienna to be slightly unsettling. There was always that vague impression that a squad of soldiers, wearing black, might march around the corner at any moment. Fortunately, those days are over, although Austrian politics is, to be put it politely, a mite on the right-wing side at the moment.

There are, at least, some liberals, courtesy of NEOS, whose leaders I first met over dinner in Brussels. I rather liked Mathias and Angelika, and I still do. They, and their party, are adamantly pro-European, internationalist and liberal, and they do attempt to make politics both fun and professional. Campaigning in the 2014 European Parliamentary elections on a slogan “We Love Europe”, would have been unimaginable at home, which perhaps explains why we lost the 2016 referendum.

And sadly, it is a reminder of what we will probably lose. I am a European to my fingertips, an internationalist of the heart, a believer in the seemingly fanciful notion that, in a complex world, working in harmony with other nations is a good idea. And whilst I am sympathetic to the idea of fighting Brexit to the last ditch, I fear that with a Government too unimaginative to change course, and an Official Opposition led by a man who believes that a new Jerusalem (ah, perhaps the wrong city there) can only be built outside the European Union, there is little prospect of salvation any time soon.

For we will go off the cliff in a year’s time. The only question is, how far is the drop, and how painful will the landing be? And, sadly, the damage will be all the worse for the lack of competence demonstrated by those leading the negotiations. It will be for historians to catalogue the events that follow, and for economists to write their theses on how Britain chose the path that it did.

As for me, I’m doing something vaguely useful, i.e. finding out what life looks like from outside the European Union, and attempting to make some new political friends. Wish me luck...

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

@BaronessRos in the Lords: Buses

Alright, not perhaps the most glamorous subject in the world, but for those of us who rely on public transport, buses are absolutely core to our options. Ros wanted to remind the Minister that, for rural communities, buses provide a much needed connection to local services...

I thank my noble friend Lord Bradshaw for tabling today’s debate and for being so effective in keeping the woes of the bus industry on the agenda because buses tend to get overtaken by railways.
Like the noble Earl, I shall use my time to speak about rural bus services in England, where there is a particularly intractable set of problems. Last year, when the Bus Services Bill was going through this House, rural issues were raised quite a number of times. The Minister, to his credit, was forced to admit that not enough attention had been paid to the potential benefits that could come from the Bus Services Act if it was implemented in the right way. I know we are not so far on, but it would be very interesting to hear from the Minister what work is going on in the department to make sure that rural areas are not forgotten. During the passage of the Bill, we talked about the way in which the commissioning process could use the Public Services (Social Value) Act criteria to level the playing field with social and community providers of transport. That was something the Minister was quite responsive to, so I would like to hear a little more about that.

I shall make two points which at one level are rather obvious, but which are not always well understood. First, there are different sorts of rural areas. The village I live in in Suffolk is tiny. There are about 200 people in the parish, and it has never had a regular bus service. People stay there only if they have access to a car, and community transport plays an important part for a very small number of people with particular needs. A mile away is a village 10 times the size, which is a completely different kettle of fish. It has always had a very good bus service. People moved there ​knowing that they had access to the nearby market town and then onwards to Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. The service has undergone successive contractions and it is now getting harder and harder for people to use the bus to get into work, or to hospitals and other places. These are both rural communities but they have very different expectations and needs.

The second point is that it is convenient to think about rural and urban areas separately, but of course they are inextricably linked. The overall health of the bus industry, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Bradshaw, is very bad, and if it is bad overall, it is dire in rural areas. We have to understand that they are linked. Also, there is the congestion problem: given that most rural journeys might originate in a rural area but are going to an urban area, they are also impacted.

The CPRE has recorded that supported mileage by local authorities has fallen by 24%. It is using the term, “the Beeching of the buses”. Many of them are in rural areas. It is quite illuminating that the Campaign for Better Transport worked out that the total of those lost grants is £225 million in England. That is a lot of money for local authorities, but in government terms, it is the cost of a single bypass. It represents 17% of bus journeys but the ones that are the most socially necessary for some groups.

In 2016, this House published a report on the way in which the Equality Act is being delivered. There was a particular strand of evidence from users about the way in which local authorities fail to do proper impact assessments when they are making decisions about bus provision. As a consequence, a number of groups now face very real problems, which are bad enough if you are in an urban area—in a rural area, it is hopeless. Many older people are unable to drive and depend on public transport. Reimbursement of the bus pass is not keeping up with the costs and, in any case, in many places there are no services on which to use a concessionary pass. In some areas, including my own, a switch to community transport schemes is all very well, but the local authority has used the licensing regime of the buses used to deny passengers the use of their concessionary fares pass.

We know that younger people are taking fewer journeys. In an urban area, that is probably quite a good thing, but in rural areas the only practical way for younger people to look for work or attend higher education—or even have some sort of social life—is running a car. I was talking to providers running the Government’s flagship National Citizen Service; they told me that rural transport is a real barrier to participation for many young people and—because the NCS is provided on a county basis—there was a ridiculous situation where students on the Cambridgeshire border were expected to get to Ipswich, which was just impossible by public transport, but could not go to Cambridge, where there is a bus. The delivery of some of these other services really needs looking at.

For jobseekers without access to a car, just getting to job centres is a real problem. There is the iniquity of people being sanctioned when the system lets them down. Then, of course, there are people on low incomes, who are very dependent on buses. In rural areas, ​because there are no buses, it is more likely that people who really cannot afford to do so are having to run one or even two cars just to get to work and so on. The irony of all this is that collectively we are actually spending quite a lot of money on buses. Between the bus operators grant, concessionary fares, home-to- school transport, the voluntary sector and health and social providers, there is a lot—but it has never been joined up.

I know that the Government have created some pilots under the Total Transport scheme, covering 37 local authority areas. It would be really useful to know a bit about the outcome of the pilots and what lessons were learned. On a linked point, the Campaign for Better Transport and the Passenger Transport Group are keen to see a connectivity fund, which would bring together this expenditure. I look forward to the Minister’s answer and I hope that she understands the very real concerns that are being expressed today about the overall state of the bus industry, particularly in rural areas.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Mid Suffolk: the Local Government Boundary Commission for England tries again...

Readers might recall that, three weeks ago, I noted that the proposed new ward boundaries for Mid Suffolk had been delayed. It now transpires that they weren’t wildly convinced by the population predictions offered to them by the District Council and, as it turned out, they indeed contained some anomalies, as pointed out by some of the Parish Councils. And so, it was back to the drawing board in the light of some revised data.

For Creeting St Peter, there is no change from the original proposals, in that we are included in the expanded Needham Market ward, a notional Liberal Democrat seat, I would guess, given that it mostly comprises of the town itself, held at District Council level since 1991, and four outlying parishes which have all returned a Liberal Democrat councillor at County or District level in the past decade... except one. Yes, that’s right, Creeting St Peter. I did try in 2011, honest, but we did win the vote in the Parish in that election if my box count was even halfway accurate.

There are some interesting adjustments, with Stowupland being combined with Old Newton, Haughley and Wetherden to form a two member ward which must be an excellent prospect for the local Greens, given that they hold both Haughley and Wetherden and Stowupland wards currently.

Barking and Somersham, the scene of a Green upset in 2016, gets torn apart, with Somersham going into the proposed new Blakenham ward, and the remainder going into Ringshall and Battisford, a potential three way contest between the Greens, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Much there will depend on how the Conservative vote holds up and who is seen as the most credible alternative.

Despite the loss of six councillors overall (from forty to thirty-four), Stowmarket keeps its seven councillors, but instead of being divided into three wards (North, Central and South), there will now be three two-member wards (Chilton, based on the northern estate of the same name, Combs Ford, broadly equivalent to the old South ward and Stow Thorney, which is everything east of the railway line). The central part of the town will become St Peter’s, and have one councillor.

And, whilst these are all provisional, it would be helpful if they weren’t changed again, as Election Day is less than fourteen months away...