What did the public ask the 4 MPs on the House of Commons Transport Committee in Liverpool yesterday?

What did the public ask the 4 MPs on the House of Commons Transport Committee in Liverpool yesterday?

Transport Committee (House of Commons) Question and Answer Session Right Lilian Greenwood MP (Chair, Nottingham South) left Daniel Zeichner MP (Cambridge), Mann Island, Liverpool 14th January 2019

What did the public ask the 4 MPs on the House of Commons Transport Committee in Liverpool yesterday?


Transport Committee (House of Commons) Question and Answer Session Right Lilian Greenwood MP (Chair, Nottingham South) left Daniel Zeichner MP (Cambridge), Mann Island, Liverpool 14th January 2019
Transport Committee (House of Commons) Question and Answer Session Right Lilian Greenwood MP (Chair, Nottingham South) left Daniel Zeichner MP (Cambridge), Mann Island, Liverpool 14th January 2019

The House of Commons Transport Committee visited Liverpool yesterday to hear a formal evidence session from witnesses from Merseytravel, Arriva and Stagecoach. Unfortunately their link video recording link didn’t work and their session is only at the time of publication available in audio which can be listened to here. Although I was present for part of that, I’m not permitted to film it although it was interesting to see how scrutiny by Members of Parliament is different to scrutiny by councillors.

However I did film the later public question and answer session which was well attended by the public and raised a whole range of very interesting transport issues.

The question I submitted in advance was, “A bus company called Avon recently ceased trading locally. Many evening and weekend services have ceased. Is extra money made available to the LCRCA in such circumstances or do replacement bus services have to be locally funded?”

I didn’t ask my question at the Question and Answer session as very similar questions were also asked about Avon.

Unlike the problems with the video recording of the House of Commons proceedings thankfully my somewhat simpler video recording equipment worked, despite signs of slight electromagnetic interference (EMI) with the picture at times which may possibly have been because of the wireless microphone used. The two parts can be viewed below.

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Transport Committee (House of Commons) Q&A Session, Liverpool 14th January 2019 Part 1 of 2

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Transport Committee (House of Commons) Q&A Session, Liverpool 14th January 2019 Part 2 of 2

In the interests of openness and transparency below is a copy of an email I wrote to the Chair of the Transport Committee Lilian Greenwood MP and others after the meeting was held (but before the video was published). I’ve corrected some minor typographical errors in the email below before publication and also corrected the lists of local authorities in the LCRCA area to include Wirral Council. I’ve also linked some words and phrases to relevant information (that weren’t linked in the original email).

Subject Transport Committee (Health of the Bus Market inquiry)
From John Brace
To Lilian Greenwood MP (Chair, Transport Committee)
Copy Rt Hon Frank Field MP, Cllr Liam Robinson – LCRCA Transport, Cllr Ron Abbey – LCRCA Lead Member Bus, Cllr Julie McManus, Cllr Brian Kenny, Cllr Liz Grey, Cllr Steve Foulkes – LCRCA Lead Finance and Organisational Development

Date: 15th January 2019

Dear Lilian Greenwood MP,

Thank you to you and the other MPs (I have no problem with this email being shared with the rest of the Transport Committee who unfortunately weren’t present or even published as evidence as part of your inquiry as I will be publishing it myself later today) for taking the time to visit Liverpool as part of the Transport Committee’s inquiry into the health of the bus market and for being kind enough to take the time to speak with myself and others before the Q&A session started.

Other people raised nearly identical questions also about the Avon issue, so I felt it was fairer considering the limited time to let other people speak as I presume I will receive a written reply to that question in the near future.

I am copying this reply in to my local MP for Birkenhead (as is custom), my local councillors (who have been asking for restored bus services at evenings and weekends to local residents following the collapse of Avon last October), as well as the Transport Lead on the LCRCA Cllr Liam Robinson, the Lead Member for Bus on the LCRCA Transport Committee Cllr Ron Abbey and the Lead Member for Finance and Organisational Development on the LCRCA Transport Commitee Cllr Steve Foulkes.

There appear to be a possible misunderstanding by the way you answered one of the questions that transport was a local authority (by which I presume you mean local council as the LCRCA is a combined authority) responsibility that has arisen about how local government that has responsibility for public transport is organised on Merseyside, in part because of the bespoke devolution arrangements that are probably different to the area you represent of Nottingham South.

However in a nutshell, the local authorities on Merseyside (Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Liverpool, Sefton, Wirral) plus one from Cheshire (Halton) to a large degree no longer deal with public transport issues directly but through the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and its executive body Merseytravel. Before the LCRCA came into being a few years ago there were similar arrangements to deal with public transport on a regional level (I think it was called an integrated transport authority and before that a passenger transport authority).

The LCRCA then agrees each year to levy the local authorities (local councils) for services it provides (as well as receiving national funding) and also has the power itself to raise money through a council tax precept (so far unused) and as you heard also it sets tolls on the two Mersey Tunnels. It also has has responsibilities for the Mersey Ferries and also agrees the franchise for local Merseyrail network. This means it can take a strategic view of the public transport system as a whole rather than its individual parts.

Each local authority area appoints some of its councillors to the LCRCA and the LCRCA model is based on the London Assembly model but with some variations (such as councillors instead of directly elected London Assembly Members). For example my own area I live in of Wirral that has 66 councillors it appoints 4 (3 Labour, 1 Conservative) to the LCRCA Transport Committee as well as one to the LCRCA itself, some councillors to the scrutiny committee etc.

This means that Merseytravel/LCRCA are the transport body for the region of around 1.5 million people (I’m not sure if that figure includes Halton or is just for Merseyside).

Unlike other Merseyside bodies (such as the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority, Merseyside Police and Crime Panel, Merseyside Waste Disposal Authority) who last year decided to increase how much they receive through either the precept or levy mechanisms, in recent years local councillors on the LCRCA Transport Committee have decided to reduce the local councils’ levy. The obvious result of this has been cuts to services previously provided.

This local decision is then explained as needed because of “national cuts” to the national funding of local authority budgets along with the council tax increase cap (as no local council or local government body seems willing to have a council tax increase referendum).

I persuaded the LCRCA to change its constitution to include at public meetings of the Transport Committee a public question time agenda item and a petitions/statements item.

I felt it was important that the public should have a mechanism to express their views at public meetings.

Anybody can therefore raise concerns they have at the regular public meetings of the Transport Committee which are held on a roughly monthly basis (or if the person can’t attend receive a response in writing). The LCRCA print details of how to do this on all agendas for public meetings and indeed there have been petitions and statements about bus services.

However unfortunately the public don’t have a right to speak at public meetings of the LCRCA Overview and Scrutiny Committee (which perhaps typifies the issue of some of the frustrations the public and organisations have in influencing political decision making).

Due to the sheer size and area covered by the LCRCA and the fact that unlike the London model there are no equivalent of London Assembly Members, there is however an unfortunate disconnect between the peoples’ wishes on public transport (as you heard in the Q&A session video of which I will publish later today), what actually happens and of course what is possible.

To be fair the local councillors have an existing workload from their other responsibilities but as you heard during the Q&A session yesterday, there is a growing frustration by the public who live here at how public transport is progressing differently in other nearby areas (such as the innovation of audiovisual displays announcing stops on buses in nearby North Wales). I share your disappointment that local bus companies see such innovations as a “cost” issue as the local bus companies make their profits based on massive taxpayer subsidy.

However back to the topic of your Committee’s inquiry and the overall transport policy aim locally of increasing public transport usage.

In my personal opinion there is insufficient competition in the bus market locally and essentially a duopoly of the two main bus companies (Arriva and Stagecoach). I don’t really however know what the solution to lack of competition in the bus market at either at the local or national political level.

As you heard in the evidence session, this means there is resistance to introduce innovations such as audiovisual announcements of stops as it is seen as a cost which would therefore reduce bus companies’ profits.

Despite much talk about the new powers to improve bus services and the Bus Services Act 2017 and also welcome changes elsewhere last year (I attended and filmed the first public meeting of Transport for the North), I don’t think there is much public understanding of actually what can be done at the political decision making level to make the fundamental changes to improve buses and indeed wider public transport for the benefit of everyone. Indeed the general perception here both by the public and at the political level is sadly of worsening public transport services especially since the Northern Rail timetabling fiasco.

It’s a source of frustration to councillors on the LCRCA Transport Committee that have expressed dismay at what they see as a worsening situation.

Indeed back to the topic of Transport for the North (the first sub regional transport body), although it has only been running as a public body for less than a year rather than the previous shadow arrangements, if your Committee hasn’t already, it would be useful for your Committee to contact or hear from Transport for the North due to the wide geographical area it covers in the region and the largely unreported work it does. It also has a similar role to the scrutiny role of your Committee and provides a link between local and national politics. Indeed it also provides a voice for the North.

Back however to local transport the train I took home was standing room only (although I am well aware that new rolling stock with I think 4 carriages rather than 3 will be introduced in the coming years). I have also been on bus journeys locally where there is a similar problem at busy times. In order for there to be increased bus usage, people’s perception and experiences of bus journeys locally need to improve rather than the bus companies cramming as many people on the bus as possible to increase their profits.

From a media perspective although I know better than most political responsibilities on the LCRCA, the LCRCA could do better at explaining its political decision-making and roles to the general public. This would then mean its decision-making was better representing what people want rather than what it thinks people want or the public feeling they have not been consulted before decisions are made.

I appreciate being emailed a media advisory note about yesterday’s evidence session and Q&A but this practice doesn’t happen with LCRCA/Merseytravel. Certainly if the LCRCA organised similar meetings I think it would help allay any public perception that the LCRCA isn’t in some way responding to their concerns about public transport. Indeed as you heard yesterday it used to hold regular meetings in each local council area but unfortunately stopped this a number of years ago.

In fact after nearly 5 years of reporting on the LCRCA and years before that on its predecessor bodies my honest opinion is that I am none the wiser about some more arcane aspects of it but I do my best to try and film and publish footage of public meetings to aid with public understanding of the decisions that impact upon everyone’s lives.

If I did not do this, the growing disconnect between the public and politicians would result in the kind of bad tempered public meetings about contentious local transport issues that have been witnessed in the past.

In the last year BBC funded Local Democracy Reporters have also been writing stories about public bodies such as the LCRCA. From memory I think there are around four at one of the main local newspapers the Liverpool Echo. This has helped considerably with local reporting as the media in general (apart from obviously state funded media such as the BBC who have a different funding model) struggles with how to make reporting or investigative reporting on public bodies commercially viable. Indeed in my local area over the last few years one of the local newspapers has ceased.

Perhaps as an example of my earlier point about the LCRCA and the public, the LCRCA appear to have given up on filming its own public meetings.

I will be publishing this email later today, along with video of the Q&A session but wanted to finish by stating that as it has been 11 years since I watched proceedings of the House of Commons in person (buses and public transport was also the topic of discussion then in 2008 in the House of Commons Chamber itself as well as the then recent death of Gwyneth Dunwoody) but it was good to hear first hand Members of Parliament providing a different sort of scrutiny to that of local councillors and I hope that in the future following this visit that the Transport Committee meeting will in the future visit Liverpool and take the time to hear the views of local people and others on transport.

Sadly too often words used by politicians locally have been frustration at a perception that local political decision making is constrained by national policy and not decided based on local needs and devolved decision making, rather than a constructive dialogue on both local and national politics working constructively together to make improvements that will benefit everyone.

Thank you for taking the time to read this,

John Brace

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Author: John Brace

New media journalist from Birkenhead, England who writes about Wirral Council. Published and promoted by John Brace, 134 Boundary Road, Bidston, CH43 7PH. Printed by UK Webhosting Ltd t/a Tsohost, 113-114 Buckingham Avenue, Slough, Berkshire, England, SL1 4PF.