Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 53) on Rural Bus Subsidy Grants for 2000-01 (HC Papaer No. 302)

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Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I add my appreciation of your wise guidance of our deliberations this afternoon, Mr. Jones. I welcome the orders, as far as they go, and reassure the Minister and his colleagues that I do not intend to press them to a Division. I am grateful to him for explaining them with his usual e´lan and style, but, sadly, I should like to make a few observations and ask a few questions, which I know he will treat with the courtesy that he always reserves for such occasions.

I turn first to the central issue—the obsession with new services. The words ``new'' and ``modernisation'' are the Government's totems, and as the wheels come off policies in a range of areas, it is probably because of that attachment to newness for its own sake. Given that we are considering a policy that literally involves wheels, why does the Minister not appreciate that perfectly good arguments can be advanced for channelling at least some of the funds into extra funding for existing services? I suppose that cunning local authorities could rebrand bus services, slip them under the net and obtain the new money. However, there is a contradiction. We all see the wisdom of genuinely new bus services in certain circumstances and localities, but one wonders whether a lot of money is poured into some schemes that will never prove themselves. By definition, existing services are proven to have a public following and viability. The Minister alluded to the fact that that point had been raised elsewhere.

The Minister touched on the question of subsidy, but there is not necessarily a link between the level of subsidy and the success of rural bus services. As one of my hon. Friends serving on the Committee considering the Transport Bill pointed out, when we were in government,

    We spent £974 million on bus services in 1984–85, but got only 2.1 billion miles of bus passenger transport. As a result of deregulation, the public subsidy was down to £280 million by 1994–95, yet we got 2.7 billion bus passenger miles in services.—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 29 February 2000; c. 756.]

Does it not concern the Minister that there is such an obvious lack of connection between the levels of subsidy and bus services?

I ask the Minister to consider as wide a definition of rural bus services as possible in future. He will recall the discussion in the Committee considering the Transport Bill about whether community transport should be afforded the same benefits as rural bus services in a narrow sense. I am sure that he needs no persuading of the benefits of community transport, such as the benefit to people with disabilities and others who would otherwise not have access to the most convenient form of transport in their localities. Almost as important is the provision of community transport for people involved in that community as volunteers.

As the Minister said, in our modern age we are not talking about only a standard bus service. We must consider dial-a-ride services and the imaginative use of taxis and private hire vehicles when only a small number of passengers might use a route, as well as home-to-school transport. It is wrong, impractical and ultimately too expensive to have Berlin walls between such forms of transport in rural areas.

I believe that the subject of public service vehicle licences and the qualifying number of passengers arose in the Committee considering the Transport Bill. Do the Government know how regulations might be changed and how that might affect the issues that we are discussing? Does the Minister agree that we should not be inflexible? Flexibility is the key to successful bus services, especially rural ones. Is one of the real aims to provide seamless bus services as needed for specific rural localities?

When does the Minister expect the Government to move from the system of annual grants—another subject that may have been discussed in debates on the Transport Bill? We are discussing one set of annual grants, but there is a lot to be said for councils being able to make more forward plans on such matters. Does he agree? Will he tell us more about the effects on rural bus services of clauses 130 and 131 of the Transport Bill?

The Government plan to abolish the bus fuel duty rebate—something that my hon. Friends have been arguing against in the Committee considering the Transport Bill. They have argued that, if possible, the rebate should also be applied to community transport, which would be consistent and give it a much needed boost. That is an important issue in many communities, not only rural ones. Will the Minister tell us more on that subject? What would be the additional cost of abolishing the rebate on rural bus services? Is there a danger of the Minister giving with one hand while his colleagues in the Treasury take away with the other? My party would apply the rebate to community transport as well.

Last year, the Government published a review of the voluntary and community transport sector by Steer Davies Gleave, and Ministers are still considering its recommendations. Ministers have also asked the Commission for Integrated Transport to examine financial support for bus services, and its study will include possible changes to the fuel duty rebate. It would be helpful if the Minister could give us a glimpse as to how his and other Ministers' thinking on such important issues is developing, as we know that the Government's finest minds are being applied to the subject.

On the rural bus challenge report, the Minister explained that out of 124 bids, only 42 authorities representing 58 schemes were successful. He obviously had something to say about the understandable disappointment over unsuccessful schemes. Does he think that the criteria may be amended in future? Are some of them too strict, or could they be added to? What encouragement can he give the losers on this occasion about future bids? What lessons does he think that they and Ministers can learn from the outcome? Does he agree that we are discussing another example of the Government's desire to take the ability to make decisions away from local authorities? As with the mushroom-like growth of specific grants, we have another example of the Government imposing the priorities that they want. We would give substantial funding to local authorities and allow them to make their decisions.

One has only to read the list to see the councils for which these are not major issues. Other councils, such as Essex, have massive rural transport issues, including school transport and rural bus services. Are not such authorities best placed to make decisions about what is required by local people, and the delivery, availability and funding of services? The Government are in danger of removing yet further powers and autonomy from local government. I shall not pursue that theme any further, as you would probably rule me out of order, Mr. Jones. In any event, we shall shortly have an opportunity to debate such issues in relation to legislation to which they are central.

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Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I add my welcome to you as our Chairman, Mr. Jones. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) would like to be in Committee, but he is detained in the Chamber, speaking on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. We both broadly welcome the Government's proposals, as we did last year, and are pleased to see that they are continuing. There is no doubt that they are having a good effect in many parts of the country.

I was pleased that the Minister stressed the importance of the review and monitoring. Did any authorities fail to take up any or all of the money available? It is important that local authorities play their part and ensure that they use available money. I hope that all hon. Members can see that there will be overall increasing numbers as the services build up. The Government are famous for their targets, so I wonder whether there is a target for bus passenger usage.

I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Eastbourne about the increase in passenger miles after deregulation, but that happened mainly in urban areas, where an enormous number of buses clogged up the cities clocking up many passenger miles, but with empty seats. Those of us in rural areas experienced a decline in the number of buses. It cannot be said that deregulation greatly assisted rural areas. There are still too many buses with too many empty seats. I cannot quite work out why, but it seems to be because they are part of other profitable services, so they can be run even though they are not largely used, because they are just a means of bringing back the bus to another point rather than providing a service that is required.

I am disappointed by the lack of integration between buses and main line railway stations and I hope that the Government will target some resources on that. My constituency has a problem with the train stations being a mile or so from the town centres. While the buses can run to the town centres, we cannot persuade them to travel a little further and operate from a bus stop outside the railway station. If we can encourage such integration, the number of people who use buses will increase.

The important issue of flexibility has also been mentioned. Minibuses and ring-and-ride taxis must be used. My area also has problems with community buses, many of which are now being replaced. They have been well used and give the community an excellent opportunity to participate in such arrangements. Groups are busy applying for lottery grants to replace the buses. However, they are finding that the cost of training community bus drivers is high and they are having difficulty in raising local grants to increase the number of drivers. We must ensure that enough drivers are available for the community buses.

If a considerable number of post offices do close over the next few years, proper plans must be made for bus services in rural areas to accommodate that. I should also like the Minister to respond to the growing problem of school transport in rural areas. In my area, the local education authority is cutting a considerable number of bus services that take children from home to school. Rather than improving the situation, that results in more parents taking their children to school by car, thus clogging up the lanes and not exactly improving the environment. That is the reverse of what we want for rural transport. I hope that the Government can examine the problem. I welcome the measures overall and I hope that they can be improved, because I have no doubt that they will have a significant positive effect on rural areas.

4.59 pm

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