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(a) any expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State under the Act, and
(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other enactment.—[Mr. Pearson.]

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

Draft General Budget of the European Communities 2002

20 Nov 2001 : Column 290

Canvey Island Telephone Mast

10.43 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Serious research shows that young children absorb up to 50 per cent. more radiation in their brains than adults from mobile telephones. International safety tests used to measure the absorption of radiation may therefore be inadequate—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I ask hon. Members to leave the Chamber quietly. An hon. Member is presenting a petition.

Bob Spink: At best, the evidence that radiation poses a health risk is inconclusive. My constituents, led by Maria Farrell, are therefore right to compile this petition calling for a precautionary approach, especially with regard to children living on Canvey island.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Bus Services (Outer London)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pearson.]

10.45 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I am grateful to the Minister for returning to the Chamber so soon after our last encounter in Westminster Hall. I know that he had a long stint today in Westminster Hall on a different transport matter.

The Minister will remember that when we discussed transport congestion, I mentioned the problems faced by bus operators and passengers in Surrey and, indeed, in other parts of the south-east, because of the wide discrepancies in public funding made available for buses inside and outside London. That is the issue to which I shall return tonight.

At the heart of the problem faced by those in my constituency and so many others in the area is an issue that affects the south-east on a far broader basis than simply in relation to transport. The allocation of financial support to local authorities and the structuring of financial support to a whole range of public services mean that when one reaches the boundaries of London, the money seems to fall off a cliff. That fact manifests itself in a variety of ways. For example, extra London weighting for teaching, the police and the health service means that people in those professions can earn thousands of pounds a year more by travelling three miles up the road.

The problem is particularly acute for our bus services. The decision by London's Mayor to deploy the huge resources available to him in supporting the development of London's bus network and cutting bus fares to a fixed level of £1 or 70p is undoubtedly good news for bus travellers in London. It is also good news for those who have access to routes covered by London-based bus operators. For them, the price of travel will also fall. However, the consequences for bus services in the counties surrounding London are much bleaker. Let me give the Minister an example.

Arriva Southern Counties operates a route from Guildford to Epsom and Kingston, running through my constituency. The stops between Epsom and Kingston are the most popular part of the route and provide the only direct transport link between the two towns. On the route, Arriva competes with one of the London operators. So far, the playing field has been level, but now that is changing. The introduction of the flat rate fares in London has transformed the economics of bus operations for those operating across the London boundaries with routes that head out into counties such as Surrey. Arriva has to match the £1 flat fare on that leg of the route but has no public subsidy enabling it to do so. As a result, the major leg of a long and important bus route through Surrey is potentially no longer viable.

I do not yet know what Arriva will do in response to the change, but I have every reason to fear that the entire route will disappear. The company said to me this morning that it was gravely concerned about the future of the route. Over the busy part of the route, from Epsom to Kingston, other operators can take Arriva's place, benefiting from the London subsidy. However, other options for the rest of the route through Surrey will be much harder to find. The likelihood is that new public

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money will have to be found to keep those parts of the route open, if only because, among other points on the route, that bus is the only major link that serves Epsom general hospital.

Elsewhere in the south-east, similar problems are being experienced. In Kent, according to the county council, buses operated by London firms benefiting from the subsidy provided by Transport for London are coming out of London, stopping in Dartford and heading on to the Bluewater shopping centre. On that route, the local operator used to charge £1.60—now, in line with the London subsidies, it charges £1, but, of course, without the benefit of any subsidy. That cannot be right. The matter has been compounded still further by the fact that Transport for London operates a weekly travelcard which effectively reduces the fare still further to about 65p. Kent county council has written to Transport for London about the problem, but has yet to receive a proper reply.

There are similar problems in other places in the south-east. Anywhere around London, county councils make similar complaints. For example, Buckinghamshire county council says that the current system is a "barrier and deterrent" to operators who might otherwise set up services.

From the perspective of authorities such as Surrey and Kent, Transport for London appears to have access to almost unlimited funds and, in consequence, is rapidly increasing both the frequency and the quality of its bus services. I had a look at the websites of TFL and of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to check on spending on buses in London. This year, TFL is able to increase its funding for bus services by £115 million—from less than £100 million to well over £200 million. According to the Department's figures, that represents about 30 per cent. of the entire amount spent throughout the country on supporting bus services.

Meanwhile, outside the areas covered by TFL—where it can deliver service subsidies—unregulated, free market bus services simply cannot afford to compete. They cannot meet TFL's standards unless they receive serious subsidies from county councils, but those councils do not receive the amount of funding that would allow them to compete with the London operators on anything like a level playing field.

The consequence is that London operators continue to cream off the best routes in the area—those that cross the boundaries and those that, as they are closer to the metropolis, will tend to carry a larger number of passengers—supported, as they are, by large amounts of public funding. At the same time, more marginal routes, which are probably kept open by the operators because they know that the more profitable areas will sustain their business, risk being dropped by the operators, who are no longer able to make a return on their services in the area.

I fully expect that the Minister will be tempted to hark back to past events—as he and his colleagues often do. I suspect that he might refer to bus deregulation, so I shall tackle it head on. There is no doubt that the history of bus transportation has been a difficult one for a generation. In many places, people do not use buses as much as we might want them to. As a result, it can be difficult to keep marginal routes open. One of the often forgotten facts about bus deregulation is that after it took place there were more buses on Britain's roads. However, in many places passengers still did not use buses.

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In Surrey, we are not talking only about losing fringe routes, we also face the loss of main routes that link major towns in the county. That is happening not due to the pressures of a free market, nor to the consequences of deregulation, but because of a clash between free market economics and a distinctly regulated and subsidised market.

Surrey county council and others like it are trying to stem the tide of closures, but it is not easy. Surrey's investment in socially necessary bus routes—those deemed not commercially viable by the operators, but assessed as socially necessary for the people of the area—has increased during the past 18 months by £2 million a year to about £5 million.

Inevitably, that funding increase has had to be found from the existing county council budget. In Surrey, that has meant taking funding away from the creation of concessionary bus schemes that could provide cheaper travel for pensioners. That money should be available to support those who need it, but it is having to be used to shore up services that we cannot afford to lose.

Worthwhile initiatives, such as the introduction of a 50p flat rate fare for pensioners throughout the country, had to be delayed as the county intervened to defend routes that would otherwise have disappeared. Officers estimate that they would need a fourfold increase in funding support for socially necessary bus services in order to bring local services up to a level similar to that provided by TFL.

The biggest losers are those people who can least afford it. If the Minister can spare a moment to look at the geography of my constituency, and that of many similar constituencies on the boundaries of London, he will see that the dividing line between a London and a Surrey community can be extremely narrow. One town, Worcester Park, is split down the middle between Surrey and the London boroughs of Sutton and Kingston. Of course, that dividing line can lead to huge perceived iniquities in the eyes of many local people. No issue enrages the pensioners of Worcester Park, Stoneleigh and Ewell more than the fact that they have to pay for their public transport, while neighbours a couple of streets away are given free access to public transport through the popular freedom pass.

Surrey only has the finance to offer half-price fares; London boroughs receive the funds to do much more. Ironically, some people with local postal addresses manage to get away with getting freedom passes any way. They have Worcester Park addresses and the systems are not good enough to check up on them, but that is not an acceptable way to deliver free bus travel to the people of the northern part of my constituency.

Let me refer the Minister to an excerpt from a letter that I received on this subject. One of my constituents told me that, for years now, people

and that they

the free bus pass facility. That is true; it happens a few hundred yards up the road at the next stop. I sympathise with their frustration. It seems odd that two people on the same bus, who live in the same community, find themselves paying vastly different amounts for the

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privilege. Of course, there are administrative reasons why that is the case, but the Minister will recognise that our pensioners do not see it that way; they see it as another injustice.

The problem has attracted broader concern. Help the Aged recently said:

Of course, none of that would happen in that part of the world if public funding did not seem to fall off a cliff the moment that it reaches the border of London. Despite the fact that the south-east is already overcrowded and congested, as we discussed in a recent debate in Westminster Hall, discrepancies exist in the allocation of funding. TFL and those who operate buses and other forms of transport in London receive much more in public money and support for concessionary fare schemes than the counties that surround them. As a consequence, we shall have less, not more, public transport in the areas immediately surrounding London, and that cannot be good for the south-east or the whole country.

The Minister will be aware that TFL is currently carrying out a review of cross-boundary bus services. I have made the points that I have made in my speech tonight to TFL as part of its review, and I urge him to do the same and to consider fully the matters that I have outlined tonight in his submission to that review.

I cannot help but conclude that part of the problem lies in the way that the Government have handled devolution in this country. The creation of the Mayor of London and the devolution of powers to him and to the Assembly have created something of a unnecessary divide between London and the rest of the south-east. In reality, the two are integrally linked, and the decisions taken by central Government about the funding support that London should receive cannot be considered in total isolation from the real interests of the wider region. The idea that we might end up with two rival regional governments—one in London, the other in Guildford—taking decisions with diametrically opposite consequences fills me with horror.

While I have the Minister's attention, I should like to turn briefly to security on buses and other forms of transport. One of the threats to bus routes in and around London comes from antisocial behaviour. In one part of my constituency, a bus route was recently withdrawn temporarily because of the constant threats to drivers. Similar problems are now being experienced on trains in the area. Will the Minister please work with his colleagues in the Home Office to strengthen the ability of transport operators and local police to take action against those whose behaviour disrupts our local transport system and makes the life of other passengers a misery?

Let me finish by making some specific requests to the Minister. When this year's allocation of support grants to local authorities are made, will he press his colleagues in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to provide councils in the south-east with adequate funding for local public transport to remove some of the differentials that, as I have said, exist between them? Will he make it illegal for a local authority to offer a subsidy to one operator on a route without offering a similar subsidy to all the other operators on that route? Will he and his Department recognise the integral links between London and the rest of the south-east and work with the London Mayor to establish clear protocols for ensuring that London decisions do not destabilise services in the surrounding areas?

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Many bus users in my constituency and their counterparts further south face a bleak few months. I fear that more services will disappear in Surrey and in other parts of the south-east. Although those who can take advantage of the cross-boundary London services will enjoy cheaper fares, the remainder will have their options greatly narrowed.

Not all the factors causing the trend are within the Minister's gift but—rather more than I do—he has the power to do something about the problems. I very much hope that he will do so.

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