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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): Traditionally, rural areas have been poorly served by bus services, especially since deregulation in the 1980s. That is one of the reasons why we introduced new powers in the Transport Act 2000 that will improve bus services throughout the country by raising standards and improving access to services. Furthermore, a 50 per cent. increase over the current three-year period in funding for rural bus grants will provide for further improvements to rural bus services. My hon. Friend will be aware that Kent has received a generous allowance this year of £1.6 million in the form of rural bus subsidy grant.
Mr. Pond: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that Gravesham has an award-winning town centre, a brand new hospital on its doorstep and two fine leisure centres, but that these facilities are not easily accessible to many of my rural constituents who do not have a car? Indeed, neither can many of those who live in urban areas enjoy the fine countryside nearby. Will he give my constituents some optimism that, in the not-too-distant
Mr. Jamieson: I know that my hon. Friend is a tireless campaigner on behalf of his rural constituents. I can appreciate why he wants them to reap the benefits of the excellent new facilities provided by Gravesham borough council, which is, I believe, a Labour council. Not only has Kent had a generous settlement for rural bus subsidy, but it has had several bids accepted under the rural bus challenge scheme of more than £1 million in the past three years. If he wants to find an example of a good scheme that is currently operating, there is one outside his area that was last year awarded £275,000. The scheme, which is called the Bike and Bus Butty, uses minibuses for towing trailers to bring cycles to their riders place of work or destination. If he is considering making a journey out of London in the next few days, he should know that he will find that scheme in Ipswich.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The Minister will be aware that his Department has just turned down a grant for Ipswich borough council in a rural part of that constituency. If the people of Ipswich cannot get a decent bus service during a by-election, when can the people of this country ever expect this Government to support rural buses again?
Mr. Jamieson: I am sorry that I pre-empted the hon. Gentleman by announcing a scheme that has been undertaken in Ipswich. I am sure that, in the by-election, the people of Ipswich will be reflecting on just how much money they would have received for their rural bus services in the unfortunate event of his party having won the election in June.
Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that rural bus services have doubled in some areas in my constituency. Unfortunately, however, the buses still travel at the wrong time to get people into the town centre of Loughborough, which makes it almost impossible to increase bus usage. Will he ensure that this money, which is very welcome, is targeted at the sort of people whom we need, including bus commuters and people who travel during the day? We need much more flexible use, so that people can not only use bus routes from villages straight into town, but visit large numbers of villages in the surrounding area, perhaps by using minibuses or other innovative schemes.
Mr. Jamieson: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. He may not be aware of the number of innovative schemes that have been introduced throughout the country under the rural bus challenge. Some of them involve car taxis, one of which I visited recently in Lincoln. The scheme is very successfully bringing people who dial-a-ride into centres where they can either catch a bus or get on to the rail services. We are committed to looking at innovative ways of improving bus transport for people not only in rural areas, but in urban areas.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Commercial buses already get a fuel duty rebate. Some 18 months ago, the Government promised to give community transport such a rebate. When will they fulfil that promise?
The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): It will be for the administrator to bring forward a transfer proposal. Proposals will be put before the administrator for a company limited by guarantee. The Government welcome the interest shown by third parties in taking over the railway network to date, and have recently published guidelines to assist the formulation of such proposals. The cost of the administrators to 2 November 2001 was just under £2 million.
Mrs. Dunwoody: The Secretary of State knows that unless the new Railtrack is more engineering based than its predecessor, all the problems of incompetent management could arise again. Will he give us an undertaking today that the new Railtrack will genuinely tackle problems such as maintenance, modernisation and development and put responsibility to the passenger at the top of its agenda?
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which she chairs, was unanimous about the litany of failure that constituted Railtrack's stewardship of the railway network. It recommended the use of engineering skills to the full if we are to get the network into a suitable condition.
That is one reason for the Government's belief that any successor to Railtrack should focus on operations, renewals and maintenancethe day-to-day job of running an effective railway network. We want to do that, and the administrator is aware of the guidelines that I have set out and that we published in the House three weeks ago.
I am confident that we have an opportunity to recast the railway network out of what happened to Railtrack and its insolvency. Some major decisions remain to be made. They will be taken in the next few weeks to ensure that we can provide the structure that will enable this country to have the railway network it deserves.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Will the new company be obliged to take on Railtrack's capital programme? In Somerset, we shall believe that we live in the world's fourth largest economy when trains occasionally stop in my constituency. We had persuaded
Mr. Byers: Yes. I am pleased to inform the hon. Gentleman that the capital programme remains; it has not gone with Railtrack. Improvements are needed, but I believe that decisions are being made more quickly because of the current position. We need to ensure that major decisions, such as those that affect the hon. Gentleman's constituency and the west coast main line, are not delayed because of administration but concluded. We can thus look to a positive future for the railway network when we move out of administration.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Does the Secretary of State accept that the structure of the company that replaces Railtrack is important to my constituency? That is true not only because of the importance of the continued investment in the west coast main line that he mentioned, but because Railtrack, Virgin and Macclesfield borough council had agreed a partnership scheme to upgrade the station. Macclesfield is a major profit centre for Virgin Trains. If we are to use rail to its maximum extent, which the Secretary of State requires, the improvements must go ahead urgently under the new company.
Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I know through the questions that he has asked in the House that he is dissatisfied on behalf of his constituents with the quality of the railway service that they experience in Macclesfield. I believe that the changes will mean genuine improvements.
On the specific point about Macclesfield station, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will investigate exactly where it is[Interruption.] I know that it is in Macclesfield and, indeed, in Cheshire. However, I shall investigate where it is in the planning process, and write to the hon. Gentleman.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Negotiations were completed and agreements concluded with 20 local authorities during the pilot stage of the scheme. We are currently concluding negotiations with the first four authorities involved in the roll-out of the scheme to all top-tier local authorities. Negotiations have started with the next 12 authorities involved in the roll-out, and negotiating slots have been timetabled with a further 103 authorities, including Wolverhampton, over the next 18 months.
Mr. Purchase: I welcome my right hon. Friend's reply, but I draw his attention to the fact that despite the many more millions of pounds that have been ploughed into local authorities over recent years, many local authorities feel that much of the cash has been targeted and ring-fenced, with the effect that it has impeded rather than improved the good and efficient management of those