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Barnsley Coalfield Rural Transport

12.30 pm

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): I am delighted to have secured a debate on this important subject. I am pleased, too, that the Minister for Transport will reply to the debate as last month he visited the project, which, as he knows, is based in my home town, Grimethorpe, and handed over the keys to a 16-seater and a 25-seater minibus, which are both wheelchair accessible and worth a total of £140,000.

The project is managed by the local rural coalfield transport partnership, which is chaired by my good friend Robin Bates. Before I speak about coalfield community transport, which I shall refer to as CCT, I want to remind the House of my constituency's background, as it is especially relevant to the debate.

Barnsley, East and Mexborough has the lowest gross domestic product per capita of any constituency in the UK, which is why it is part of the South Yorkshire objective 1 area. It has the highest level of disability, which is a direct legacy of the former mining industry; one in three households in the constituency has at least one disabled person. It has one of the lowest levels of car ownership of any constituency in the country.

The hinterland of the constituency comprises a pepperpot of scattered former mining communities, most of which have a population of between 2,000 and 6,000 and are located between Barnsley and Doncaster. In terms of transport infrastructure they are quite isolated. Serious economic and social problems arose after the collapse of the local mining industry in the early 1990s. No new work was available locally and people found it hard to get employment outside the area. There was a drive, especially by local youth projects, to enable young people to travel out of the area for personal development and recreation.

Since 1997, the Government have recognised the need to improve the transport infrastructure in places such as Barnsley and Doncaster. In Doncaster in the current year, a further £10 million is being made available to complete the important Doncaster north road bridge scheme, the total cost of which is about £46.5 million. This year, too, £2.9 million is being made available to complete the Denaby road crossing scheme adjacent to Mexborough, at a total cost of £9 million. Since 1997 in Barnsley, the Dearne towns link road, and phase 1 of the coalfields link road have been completed. In the current year, phases 2 and 3 of the coalfields link road will be completed and provisional funding for the Cudworth and West Green bypass and the Barnsley interchange has been agreed.

One of the major clarion calls of this Government has, rightly, been social inclusion and CCT is a classic example of what we are trying to achieve nationally in terms of public transport and social inclusion. CCT has its origins in a regeneration strategy that was drawn up for Grimethorpe in the mid-1990s. Community transport was highlighted as a particular matter of concern in the report. A follow-up report, entitled "Grimethorpe Transport and Mobility Feasibility Study" and produced in January 1998, highlighted the need for better public transport provision. A pilot project was started, and one minibus was loaned by

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Barnsley dial-a-ride to provide accessible transport journeys for youth and community groups in the local area. One trip a week was operated to a local supermarket, and group hire facilities were offered to a range of community groups. The pilot project lasted for six months from November 1998 to March 1999, and the main output was to introduce community-based transport solutions and train local volunteers in minibus operation.

At this point, I should like to pay tribute to one individual in particular. Local parish councillor Beryl Sargesson has been the main driving force behind the project from day one. The Minister met Beryl when he visited Grimethorpe, and she has asked me to thank him for the time that he took to speak to local people about the project.

The pilot aimed to enhance the local community's capacity to develop its own transport solution and increase people's employability through training. It trained volunteers in driving and customer care, and operational experience was gained by providing a one-day-a-week service to leisure and social opportunities. A core group of 12 volunteers were involved, three of whom were able to move on to secure full-time employment as a result of their work in the project. A group hire service was offered, but with only one minibus available for the pilot, it was not always possible to meet local demand.

The project experienced difficulties in securing more volunteers, especially when incapacity benefit rules excluded people from offering more than the occasional hour. It was concluded that the project needed to be developed more professionally and involve a number of paid staff who could deliver services not suited to provision by volunteers. The next period was devoted to acquiring resources and funding to implement the development plan. Funding was secured and the project became operational in June 2000. The main elements of its funding package of more than £500,000 came from three main sources: the Countryside Agency, via its rural transport fund; European regional development fund objective 2 priority 5 funding; and Coalfields Regeneration Trust money.

The project initially provided transport for community services in the Brierley and Darfield wards, but it was always planned to extend the area covered to include the Dearne to the south and to become a cross-boundary project by extending into the coalfield areas of south-east Wakefield. I am thinking particularly of what we call the SESKU villages, and I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) in his place because they are in his constituency. SESKU stands for South Elmsall, South Kirkby and Upton, which are three mining communities that are very similar to those in my constituency.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth): My hon. Friend is a great fighter for coalfield communities, and I pay tribute to him for securing this debate. He mentioned some villages in my constituency, and he will know that deprivation in mining villages does not stop at the Barnsley boundary. Many of the villages that I represent suffer from the same problems of lack of access to work, leisure and education. I pay tribute to the work that he

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has done, with the Minister and the other people involved, in bringing the project to the area and we look forward to its extension into my constituency.

Jeff Ennis : I thank my hon. Friend for those comments, and I shall refer later to a specific problem with extending the project into his area. I am sure that both he and the Minister will be interested to hear about it.

The proposals for a revised cross-boundary coalfield rural transport partnership are supported by Barnsley metropolitan borough council and City of Wakefield metropolitan district council and are now being implemented. Countryside Agency funding for a rural transport partnership officer has also been secured. The project management is based on a partnership that involves local authorities, passenger transport executives, Barnsley dial-a-ride, the Countryside Agency and, most importantly, the community, which has representation on the rural transport partnership. Barnsley metropolitan borough council acts as the lead authority.

The rural transport partnership determines the types and patterns of services to be provided. To date, 700 individuals are registered to travel with CCT. By the end of December 2001, more than 30,000 passenger journeys had been made by CCT services, including almost 4,500 for travel to work and training purposes. Assistance with travel to work and training opportunities are a vital ingredient of CCT, and are much appreciated by local businesses. Evidence of such appreciation can be seen in a letter from a large textile producer in South and West Yorkshire, SR Gent International, which has factory units in Barnsley, Doncaster and Wakefield. It is signed by the head of personnel and is addressed to CCT:

That provides direct evidence of the good job that the partnership is doing and that CCT is providing.

Altogether, CCT has created 10 new jobs; 32 drivers—nine staff and 23 volunteers—have been trained; and six trainees have gone on to paid employment. Although the number of trainees moving into jobs was lower than expected, CCT has assisted the junction project in Grimethorpe, which deals mainly with young people with problems. It provided transport that enabled 20 youngsters to access job search facilities and visit potential employers. Those young people have not usually availed themselves of the more traditional routes into work via the Employment Service. The partnership and CCT are both viewed by Barnsley council as making a substantial and vital contribution to the social inclusion aims and objectives of the Barnsley community plan and the South Yorkshire local transport plan.

What does the future hold for CCT? I hope that it will be bright. The partnership is extending into west Yorkshire villages similar to my mining communities.

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The Government must acknowledge that community transport plays a vital role in recognising and providing for gaps in the local public transport network that are not usually met by commercial operators.

Sustainability is a complex issue. Affordability means that a subsidy is required to provide services. However, a window of opportunity is presented by the Employment Service via jobcentre clubs—as subsidy can be provided alongside potential sponsorship from employers—as well as the Countryside Agency, objective 1 funding and, I hope, passenger transport executives.

It is worth noting that in the Government's challenge fund, community transport is identified as an area to which funding agencies should look to enhance and sustain existing operations rather than to reinvent the wheel. We must ensure that future funding regimes have sufficient flexibility to cope with local community demands and that we avoid too much bureaucracy. The current expansion into West Yorkshire provides a classic example. South Yorkshire is an objective 1 area, but the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth qualifies only for objective 2 priority 5 funding, which can create problems. We need greater flexibility between the two funding regimes. Generally speaking, the provision of objective 1 funding can be very bureaucratic. I acknowledge that accountability is important when it comes to spending public money, but the bureaucracy should not be over-burdensome. I am not convinced that the balance is right for objective 1 funding.

There can sometimes be a conflict with the need for traffic-calming measures whose specification prevents low-floor vehicles from accessing kerb-to-kerb services. That issue requires much thought and attention from the local highways authority and the local partnership. My right hon. Friend the Minister may have some words of wisdom on that extremely difficult subject that I could pass on to my local highways authorities.

CCT was designed as a pilot to highlight some of the barriers identified in the coalfields taskforce report; to provide information on the potential changes needed in funding regimes, legislation and regeneration processes, both at a community and economic level; and to focus on residents who were suffering social exclusion and did not have access to a car.

During the period of operation, CCT has moved from an isolated cul-de-sac in the deprived mining community of Grimethorpe, Shafton and Brierley to being the fulcrum of a best practice project. It is not only achieving its core objectives on travel to work, but adding value to social and self-help community activities that had been stifled by affordability and availability issues. It is widely seen as one of the most successful partnership projects in the delivery of travel to training and work.

The project involves a continuous search for improvement and excellence as well as community accountability. That is achieved by liaison with communities at varying times of day and periods; passenger surveys, which check the relevance and effectiveness of the services; liaison with strategic bodies; and links with the Employment Service,

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employers and potential inward investors. I have watched the project grow and mature and I thoroughly recommend it to the House.

Jon Trickett rose—

Mr. Alan Hurst (in the Chair): Order. If the hon. Gentleman can confirm that he has the consent of the Minister and the hon. Gentleman in charge of the debate to speak, I am more than happy for him to do so.

12.46 pm

Jon Trickett : Thank you, Mr. Hurst. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) knows that I wish to contribute, and my right hon. Friend the Minister has indicated that I have his consent to do so.

I wish only to emphasise one point that my hon. Friend made. The boundary for objective 1 status goes right through the middle of the coalfield communities, and the pit villages straddle both sides of it. The boundary is in fact a stream, which with my long legs it is possible to straddle. The fields on my hon. Friend's side are worth millions in terms of the money that is available; the fields on my side are rather barren.

There is the principle of contiguity, however. I understand that, where the boundary is contiguous with an objective 1 area, it is possible for funds to cross it to help to deal with deprivation, because clearly that does not end at a particular stream. Will the Minister ensure that his officials operate with some flexibility when they consider that matter? People travel from Barnsley to my constituency for jobs, and in the reverse direction.

Finally, I apologise if I infringed the protocol of Westminster Hall, Mr. Hurst. I shall ensure that I do not do so again.

12.48 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar) : First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing this Adjournment debate. I also welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). Both raised a number of valuable points, which also have a wider relevance.

Transport is at the heart of the Government's agenda for a prosperous and just society. A modern transport system is not just about getting people from A to B; it must also support the Government's wider objectives of rebuilding communities and tackling social exclusion. That is particularly relevant in areas such as Barnsley, Hemsworth and Mexborough.

As we increasingly understand, good transport links and services are vital to achieving regional economic prosperity and stimulating regeneration. They encourage new businesses, allow established businesses to expand and bring potential markets closer. They also facilitate better access to jobs and services, helping to ensure that communities do not become isolated and disadvantaged.

That is why the Government are determined to improve transport throughout the country. We have made it clear that transport is one of our key priorities,

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alongside education, health and crime. Thanks to the 10-year plan for transport, we have made a step change in investment across all modes and introduced more certainty into transport funding.

Perhaps nowhere is the need for better transport links and services more important than in the former coalfield areas, such as Barnsley, which have suffered tremendous social and economic upheavals over the last thirty years. Many of those communities are predominantly rural in character, typically consisting of small settlements located some distance away from major urban centres. Access to transport is, therefore, vital for residents, many of whom face severe deprivation and isolation. Lack of access, particularly to cars, is one of the major causes of social exclusion in those areas. That fact was recognised by the Government back in 1998 when our coalfields taskforce reported.

Since then, we have agreed to fund, through the local transport plan process, all five of the recommended new road schemes identified by the taskforce and for which bids for financial support have been submitted. That included two new roads to improve access to the Barnsley coalfield regeneration area, and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough provided the details of those schemes. We have also accepted in the last two local transport settlements the case for a further four major local transport schemes in locations identified by the Coalfield Communities Campaign. The potential regeneration benefits of those schemes were one of the key factors in our decision to give them the green light. We want to see more such schemes coming forward from local authorities in the future.

Important though it is, we do not only need investment in the road infrastructure to stimulate the regeneration of coalfield communities. Public transport improvements are also essential, especially to tackle social exclusion, as we recognise that not everyone can or wants to have access to a car. We are therefore keen to encourage better bus and community transport services in coalfield communities.

The Government recognise that community transport in particular has an important role to play. It can offer a flexible door-to-door service in a way that conventional bus services, which may have a greater relevance in urban areas, cannot. That is particularly important for dispersed communities like the former coalfield areas. Community transport by its very nature also involves the wider community, which is essential if we want more local participation in coalfield regeneration.

Decisions must ultimately be made at a local level by people who understand the needs of that community, working in partnership with local authorities, bus operators, local businesses and interest groups. Partnership working is the cornerstone of our approach to delivering improvements in transport and I am pleased by how that is developing across the country. The success of the partnership approach is very much in evidence in the Barnsley coalfields rural transport partnership. As my hon. Friend said, I saw that in action when I visited his constituency recently. I saw the success of that programme and was delighted to participate in it and to talk to the users and those who have been so active in bringing it about. I am delighted that it is making further progress.

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Our role must be to establish the right regulatory and financial framework to enable better public transport services to be delivered to coalfield areas and rural communities generally. That is what we have done. The coalfield communities have received a 54 per cent. increase in funding in the three years following the publication of the rural White Paper, compared with the period 1998 to 2001. The rural bus subsidy grant given to local authorities since 1998 has established more than 1,800 new or enhanced bus services across rural England. South Yorkshire passenger transport executive itself will receive nearly £500,000 this year.

The rural bus challenge has successfully funded a wide range of innovative door-to-door and demand-responsive services, including taxi-buses, dial-a-ride and other community transport services. Several former coalfield areas have benefited from challenge funds and guidance to local authorities on the next challenge round should be published next month. I hope that local authorities representing coalfield communities will come forward with further innovative and well thought out proposals.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Countryside Agency is also supporting community-based rural transport projects through its rural transport partnership initiative. That programme has already made a significant contribution to the funding of the Barnsley coalfields rural transport partnership. I understand that the agency has recently agreed to provide further funding for the partnership—as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth said—in order to extend community transport provision north towards Wakefield. That is also important in linking the areas to try to increase access to the Wakefield-Leeds conurbation and its employment opportunities.

The Barnsley partnership has also been supported by regeneration funding, particularly from Yorkshire and Humber objective 2 money—although I take on board my hon. Friends' concerns. Such regeneration programmes offer a valuable source of funding for community-based transport projects in former coalfield areas. It is crucial that local stakeholders work in partnership to secure the funding available, as the Barnsley partnership demonstrates.

I understand concerns about the longer-term future of specific schemes, given that funding is usually only guaranteed for up to three years. We cannot give open-ended commitments to fund schemes requiring significant revenue support in the long term. Each scheme must continually prove its value in meeting the transport needs of the local community, in an efficient, timely and relevant manner.

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In terms of individual programmes such as the rural transport partnership programme, it is also crucial to review regularly each programme and evaluate the progress that has been achieved before deciding on the future level of funding. That will help to ensure that we take account of new developments and have the most cost-effective and efficient means of delivering the improvements that we want in rural transport services.

We are not only providing the investment. We are looking to transform the regulatory framework for community transport so that this sector can grow and thrive. Dial-a-ride services such as those supported by the Barnsley partnership are now benefiting from the recent extension of bus fuel duty rebate to community transport operators. That has been widely welcomed across the country. The extension, from May 2002, should slash fuel costs for many section 19 community transport operators, saving them hundreds of pounds each year. Many have welcomed that development, which will create a more level playing field with commercial bus services.

We remain committed to consulting on possible changes to the current regulatory framework to reduce any unnecessary barriers to further expansion of the community transport sector. Consultation has been under way for some time. We want to consider routes and timetables on registered services especially, to make it easier to run flexibly routed bus services, which may serve areas such as Barnsley and Hemsworth more effectively than the conventional pattern. That will benefit both mainstream bus services and those provided under a community bus permit, which provide vital services to the general public.

Once the consultation is under way, we will look at the scope to relax the rules on voluntary sector transport. However, that is a difficult issue, as we must strike the right balance between providing useful freedoms and ensuring the proper level of vehicle safety checks, as well as the right balance between operators.

I acknowledge the concerns expressed so effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough on behalf of his community. We remain committed to the regeneration of former coalfield areas such as Barnsley, and determined that transport should play its part in that regeneration. Better public transport to meet the community's needs is essential if we are to tackle social exclusion. Community transport, from dial-a-ride to shared taxis, has a valuable role to play, as the Barnsley coalfields rural transport partnership demonstrates. The Government have an important role in setting the right regulatory and financial framework, but the local community working in partnership can also help to deliver better public transport. Barnsley coalfields rural transport partnership shows the way forward for other coalfield communities, and we hope that it will continue to flourish.

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