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10.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) for raising the matter of school bus services. I thank her for her courtesy in giving me notice of some of the main issues that she intended to discuss in the debate. I hope to offer her an encouraging response.

It goes without saying that we all want to be sure that children travel to school in safety and, wherever possible, by sustainable modes of transport. As my hon. Friend rightly observed, 18 per cent. of cars on the road in urban areas at the peak of the morning rush--that is, at 10 minutes to 9--are taking children to school.

The proportion of journeys to school by car has almost doubled since the mid-1980s, to 30 per cent., with 38 per cent. of primary pupils and more than 20 per cent. of secondary pupils travelling to school by car. Bus use has remained relatively stable, at around 20 per cent. Walking

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and cycling have declined, although 53 per cent. of primary pupils and 42 per cent. of secondary pupils still walk to school.

We know that children sitting in cars in congested, slow-moving traffic can be exposed to pollution levels three times higher than those outside the car, yet there is a range of alternatives to the car for the--usually short--journey to school. There is a widespread perception that healthy, sustainable travel to school largely involves walking and cycling, rather than bus use. The vast majority of children who live within a mile of school do walk, but because the average journey length has increased to 1.5 miles for five to 10-year-olds and 3.3 miles for 11 to 16-year-olds, fewer trips are now within walking distance. The bus should therefore be a positive choice for more parents and their children.

Caroline Flint: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a lack of adequate discussion and consultation on the production of transport plans to meet the needs produced by school reorganisation? Such reorganisation can occur in the form of school closures, which happen because of falling numbers, or as a result of the conversion of the structure of primary, middle and secondary schools to a two-tier system.

Mr. Hill: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The production of such plans is one of the tasks that we expect the 111 travel plan co-ordinators for schools and firms, whom she mentioned, to address as school mergers develop. The Government have just introduced those co-ordinators, at a cost of £9 million.

Buses take up far less road space than the cars that are needed to carry an equivalent number of passengers. More bus travel during the peak school run would cut congestion on the roads and thus help to reduce vehicle emissions. With a few hopeful exceptions, bus travel has steadily declined during much of the past half century and is only now starting to show signs of recovery. Bus travel to school allows children to socialise with their peers, to gain greater independence and self-confidence and to learn important skills such as an understanding of timetables.

Bus travel is safer than car travel, and by ensuring that children use buses, we might even encourage them to become lifelong public transport users, with all the benefits that that would bring. Greater bus travel to school would benefit both schoolchildren and the environment, but getting pupils out of cars and on to buses requires partnership. Local authorities need to work in partnership with operators, parents and other stakeholders to achieve that aim.

The Government have put buses at the heart of our integrated transport plans. We have set ourselves the target of increasing bus passenger journeys by 10 per cent. by 2010. Local authorities have just received a good revenue support grant settlement, and there has been substantial growth in Government funding for the third year running. There will be a national average increase of 4.4 per cent. in general grant money next year. The settlement took into account the increase in bus contract prices that is being experienced in a number of areas.

We are also providing growing support for rural bus services, including continuation and expansion of the rural bus subsidy grant scheme; its contribution will increase to

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£140 million over the next three years. In addition, £60 million will be provided for the rural bus challenge and we are introducing a new urban bus challenge to improve transport links for deprived urban areas, which will provide £40 million over the next three years. We are also implementing a range of policies to improve bus services generally.

All those measures are encouraging bus operators and local authorities to work together to drive up quality, frequency and reliability, and to extend bus coverage. We have now put in place arrangements that give a proper role to local authorities and ensure a clear system of local transport planning. At the same time, we recognise the need to harness the commercial expertise and innovation of the private sector.

I perfectly understand my hon. Friend's concerns. She would like a national school bus strategy to be established. I understand that to mean that she wants an increase in free home-to-school transport and in other local bus services that serve schools. We are working towards implementing the recommendations made to Ministers by the school travel advisory group, which is known as STAG, on the use and availability of buses for the journey to school. STAG wants walking, cycling and bus use to return by 2010 to the levels of the mid-1980s. That would mean that 80 per cent. of primary school children and 90 per cent. of secondary school children travelled by such means.

We are aware that many people feel that the current statutory walking distances--two miles for pupils aged up to seven, and three miles for those aged eight and above--that govern qualification for free home-to-school transport are unreasonable, and that legislation does not support parental preference on school choice. Indeed, my hon. Friend made that point forcefully. We know that, of the children who live between one and three miles from school, more than 60 per cent. of those aged five to 10 and about 30 per cent. of those aged 11 to 16 currently travel by car. Recent research has shown that a significant number of those children might be expected to travel by bus if the statutory walking distances were reduced. Reduced congestion benefits could then be expected, especially in urban areas.

To that end, STAG recommended that better use be made of the substantial resources already devoted to statutory school transport, so that arrangements are better targeted on safe, healthy and environmentally friendly travel to school.

Let me remind the House of the real purpose and function of statutory school transport. It is not and never was designed to be an all-inclusive school transport service. It is a safety net to ensure that no children are denied the right to attend a suitable school because they live too far away, have special needs or face a dangerous journey.

Caroline Flint: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hill: I would rather not. I have much to say and relatively little time. However, I appreciate the customary devotion and assiduity that my hon. Friend brings to such matters.

The amount budgeted for and spent on statutory school transport by local education authorities has been increasing above inflation in recent years. It is now a

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substantial sum--more than £440 million in 1998-99. However, some two thirds of the figure is spent on pupils with statements of special educational needs. That leaves approximately £150 million for the 7.5 million pupils of compulsory school age who do not have statements. It gives local authorities little scope for additional discretionary provision.

My colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment are, however, considering proposals for pilot schemes to enable local authorities to test the supply and take-up of additional school transport for children who are not currently entitled to free transport. In advance of that, my Department has invited tenders for a survey of attitudes to test the likely take-up of additional school transport services and the extent to which it would be influenced by a range of factors, including fares.

Statutory school transport is not the only source of assistance. Local authorities have the power, but no duty, to establish concessionary fare schemes in their areas under the Transport Act 1985. About 40 per cent. of shire counties have a scheme for young people, though few are countywide, and some do not provide fare reductions in the morning peak. By contrast, in the metropolitan areas, all six passenger transport authorities provide flat fares or half fares on local buses that are valid in the morning peak. Those schemes are supported by Government subsidy.

In the shire areas, it is common for discounted fares to be offered commercially by private sector bus operators, and the discount is usually half fare. In London, Transport for London, rather than local authorities, operates a discount scheme for young people at roughly half fare. It is regarded as a commercial scheme without Government subsidy, it covers the five to 18 age group and it is available in the morning peak. In the light of that, STAG also recommended that affordable bus travel to school be made available to all children in compulsory education. My Department plans to discuss that further with major bus operators.

The Department has also commissioned consultants to identify current best practice in increasing bus use for the journey to school. We consulted local authorities, schools and bus operators, and they identified many examples of local action to promote bus travel for the home-to-school journey. The consultants reported last year and we shall shortly publish a guide for local authorities, bus operators and parents groups that draws together the main lessons from the study. It will be full of real-life examples of the way in which schools, parents, bus operators, local businesses and the police have worked together successfully to increase travel to school by bus. We hope that the guide will stimulate other authorities, and especially operators, to consider the further measures that they can take.

We know that some local authorities and bus operators are currently developing innovative school bus schemes. One is in Surrey, where the recent local transport plan settlement conferred large sums of Government money on a pilot project that provides direct transportation from home to school for 40 primary schools in the county. Other schemes are based directly on the American school bus system. We are watching their development with interest. My hon. Friend is evidently doing so too.

The Department has been working with the bus operators FirstGroup to identify where American yellow bus vehicles might be modified to meet construction and

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use requirements, and where special authorisation might be required. I understand that FirstGroup has agreed to make all the required modifications to ensure that the vehicles comply with the conditions of initial fitness regulations. It will hold urgent discussions with the Department on the further modifications that are required to fulfil the accessibility regulations.

Any exemptions granted to FirstGroup vehicles will have to be fully justifiable, and other operators will need to be treated in a similar fashion. I have already received representations from other vehicle manufacturers, operators and groups representing disabled people. My ministerial colleagues and I have given an assurance that the Government remain totally committed to a fully

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accessible public transport system, and that will be borne in mind when deciding whether those vehicles are to be accepted on UK roads.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the debate. My colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment and I regard the issue of promoting travel to school by safer and more sustainable modes as very important. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that we are currently very active in this area. I welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend this evening, just as I welcome all other constructive suggestions about further work to be done.

Question put and agreed to.

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