Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500
WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2001
SPELLAR, MP, MR
500. What are you doing about it? What are
you doing, for example, about the rise in bus operating costs?
(Mr Spellar) Two different areas there. If we are
talking about bus patronage, in some areas it has stabilised.
The West Midlands is an example where it has stabilised. London
is an example, as you have rightly identified, where there has
been an increase in bus patronage.
501. But elsewhere?
(Mr Spellar) Elsewhere, as car ownership is rising,
there is still a decline, although that seems to have levelled
off a bit. It is still moving down slightly but reasonably stable.
It is a fairly slight decline. In a number of areas, the use of
the showcase routes where you are having a very regular bus service
going down the major routes, particularly into city centres, is
achieving an increase in patronage. Unfortunately, that can be
sometimes seen to be at the expense of the peripheral routes in
those areas. There is a real dilemma there as to whether resources
should be concentrated on increasing patronage or how this balances
with the question of social exclusion.
502. Those are the questions we are asking
you, Minister, with respect. We are pointing out there has been
a fall of 22.9 million outside the two regions that you were talking
about. That is something like 35 per cent of United Kingdom bus
journeys. What is your Department doing about it?
(Mr Spellar) What does that relate as a percentage?
503. What is important to us is that you
are saying local authorities can change the atmosphere with their
local plans, with their local knowledge. Regional offices have
an input. Of course they all have an input but surely you as the
Department of Transport must be the lead Department giving a clear
line of what you want done to arrest the fall in bus patronage?
(Mr Spellar) With respect, there are two different
issues here. One is about the level of bus patronage and we are
able to arrest the decline and even achieve slight increases by
focussing resources onto the main routes, the high volume routes,
and increasing that volume. That works. We do then get a criticism
within those same areas that, at the same time, a number of those
operators are trimming their peripheral routes which does not
do much for volume but may be very important on social exclusion
ground. We do have to look at both of those areas, but they are
not the same thing.
504. Is it not the case that bus patronage
is very closely linked to costs? Is it not the case that the cost
of motoring is continuing to either stay level or go down a bit;
whereas the cost of using buses in particular is going up? Unless
you are a pensioner on concessionary fares, what is the incentive?
What is the Department doing? Yes, they are looking at local plans
but they need to do a little bit more than looking at those plans
in order to redress that balance.
(Mr Spellar) If we are looking at the social exclusion
issue and the numbers, it is availability.
505. It is also cost.
(Mr Spellar) It is also, on a number of routes, the
regularity of the service and the safety of the service. When
we do any surveys of passengers, those are rated more highly in
the scale than the cost of the service.
506. Does not the availability depend on
the Passenger Transport Authority being able to have the resources
to put in tendered services?
(Mr Spellar) Not for the tendered services because
some of these are on competitive routes but also facilitating
those routes, providing bus lanes, making improvements at junctions
that facilitate the bus routes and therefore enable a faster journey.
This is particularly on commuting into the centres of towns and
it has a significant impact on volume. That is quite different
from the issue of travel on to peripheral areas and the question
of social exclusion, although these are not mutually exclusive.
507. If, as the Chairman says, bus patronage
is going down, bus lanes, bus gates all have a resources impact.
Do you believe that local authorities and transport authorities
have the necessary resources to redress the trend that the Chairman
is talking about?
(Mr Spellar) There are a number of factors involved
in declining bus usage. It is quite interesting to look at a number
of areas of the country. Where we are seeing the greatest reduction
in bus usage is precisely in those areas, on whatever your base
date is, where there was a lower level of car ownership. This
is particularly the case, for example, in the north east of England,
where a number of those areas have been moving up closer to the
national average in levels of car ownership; whereas in London
there has not been such a dramatic narrowing of that gap on levels
of car ownership and bus utilisation has increased and equally
in the Midlands as well where there has been a marginal increase.
There is that factor as well. It is not just one simple factor
that is influencing the utilisation of the system.
508. With great respect, you have dodged
the question: do you think the Passenger Transport Authorities,
local authorities, have the necessary resources, other things
being equal, to redress the trend?
(Mr Spellar) There are substantial resources but I
equally accept that they are putting the case to us that, as a
result of substantial increases in costs in the bus industry,
not least because of shortage of drivers and wage increases, there
are pressures on their budgets in that area.
509. That is where the financial pressure
is coming from: the wage or salary increases in bus operators
rather than the local and transport authorities?
(Mr Spellar) All the evidence coming from local authorities
is that they are seeing significant increases, particularly where
operators are tendering for services. That is quite different
from when they are operating services on a commercial basis. Presumably
the same factors are having an impact there as well.
510. One of the consequences of the different
levels of public finance available for supporting buses is what
you see on the fringes of London, where the subsidy available
to London bus operators crossing the boundaries is substantially
greater than the subsidy available to those operating from counties
outside back into London. What we are seeing happening is that
central routes are being taken over by the London operators. The
operators from outside no longer have the cherries on which to
build their networks and they are disappearing. I do not know
if the same is true in Manchester but it seems to me there is
a disparity that the Department needs to address because bus patronage
outside the metropolitan areas is suffering as a result.
(Mr Spellar) The rationalisation of operators in areas
is not something that is exclusive to the fringes of London. Right
across the country, there has been a steady move towards a sole
operator provision in many areas, as different companies have
exited from different areas. That may be part of an inexorable
511. Routes outside the metropolitan areas
are disappearing. The route from Kingston to Guildford is operated
by London operators and from Kingston to Epsom and by Surrey operators
on the whole route. Because the London operators are subsidised,
they can offer a flat rate, £1 fare which the Surrey operators
cannot. The result is that the whole route through Surrey is disappearing.
I do not know if that is happening in places like Manchester as
well but there is a real risk that the drive to build bus usage
in London certainly will remove bus services outside London because
the subsidised operators are removing the financial viability
of routes that go from just inside London right outside.
(Mr Spellar) One of the requirements of our policy
is to try and achieve a shift towards public transport, particularly
in the conurbations and particularly in London. That is a mechanism
for dealing with very considerable congestion problems in London.
If there are consequences of that as a result of the greater efficiency
of utilisation of the London services, that is a difficulty but
one that is very much in line with trying to achieve more people
travelling by bus on those services.
Chris Grayling: Given that bus patronage outside
London, in other parts of the country, is falling, one of the
consequences of what is happening in Londonand I hope your
Department is going to be very mindful of thisis that bus
patronage is being driven down through the consequence of a subsidised
geographic area bumping into a substantially less subsidised geographic
area. The consequence is that outside patronage is going and routes
512. If social exclusion is increasing because
bus fares are going up, is there any evidence that more people
are running cars that are not insured and do not have road tax?
(Mr Spellar) I do not know that social exclusion is
increasing because of bus fares going up. The complaints that
I get are much more to do with the availability of services. That
is particularly the case not just on peripheral estates but also
at certain times of the day.
513. Do you not feel socially excluded if
you cannot get a bus at a time when you want it?
(Mr Spellar) Yes. That is about availability more
than about price. There are considerable concerns being expressed
regarding availability of early buses but about the trimming of
routes. Some of that is to do with public safety issues, I fully
accept. Some bus companies are withdrawing from certain areas,
even ironically in an issue raised with me by a member of the
public and also by a Member of Parliament, withdrawing from one
particular area between the hours of four and six in the afternoon,
which you would think would be peak usage. Unfortunately, it is
also the time when youngsters come out of school and they have
been bricking the buses. Therefore, the bus company have withdrawn
from that area during that period. These are some of the broader
reasons why routes are not being covered and that obviously requires
a multi-agency response.
514. What about the effect on insurance
and road tax?
(Mr Spellar) That is very considerable in its own
right. It is estimated up to a million cars are not registered
in this country and by definition a very considerable percentage
are not insured.
515. Is that going up?
(Mr Spellar) It is very hard to get a handle on the
exact numbers and therefore on the trend line save that we are
aware of it being a very considerable number, not least from the
measures that we are now putting into place to deal with abandoned
vehicles, but also in operations such as Operation Cubitt in Kent,
where we are dealing with unlicensed vehicles as well and also
linking up with the Association of British Insurers in order to
match the two databases.
516. You do have accurate information though,
do you not, Minister, because the DVLA knows how many people take
the first part of the driving licence and do not take the second
part and then presumably disappear out of your figures. It is
clear from the rise in vehicle ownership that there are people
driving who are uninsured because they have not got their licences.
You have access to those figures because the DVLA can tell you
how many people have taken the first part of the exam.
(Mr Spellar) We would know how many people might have
driving licences. That would not necessarily tell us how many
at any particular time actually own cars.
517. No, but you could get a very good idea
of the trend. You were saying you had no indication of the trend
within your own Department's agencies. There are various ways
in which you could build a model which would give you a very good
indication of the trend.
(Mr Spellar) It would give an indication as to the
potential scale but accurate figures and therefore the percentage
increase would be more difficult.
(Mr Roberts) We have some information about vehicles
without tax. We do a survey every two years where we try to monitor
this. It is quite difficult. There are quite large errors around
the estimate, but the trend is broadly flat in recent years. In
the last year or so, we have been putting a lot of effort into
reducing tax evasion and that has had an effect. The steps that
the DVLA have been taking have been quite effective, as has the
work in the Cubitt experiment that the Minister referred to, which
was primarily about abandoned cars but had the knock-on effect
of considerably reducing tax evasion in the area.
518. In paragraph 6.69 of the Annual Report,
you say that local road maintenance has suffered in the past from
under funding. In paragraph 6.52 of the same document you announce
the transfer of the first portion of non-core roads, trunk roads,
to local highway authorities. What additional funding is the Department
going to make available to the highway authorities to make good
the roads which your Department has already admitted are in a
bad state of repair?
(Mr Spellar) Part of the negotiations that take place,
and one of the reasons why they are probably so protracted, is
about the level of the dowry that accompanies the transfer of
the trunk road when it is being detrunked from the Highways Agency
to a local authority. That is exactly where the local authorities
are seeking to ensure that they receive sufficient money in order
both to get the road up to standard but also to maintain it in
an appropriate standard.
519. It is still ongoing?
(Mr Spellar) In many cases, it is going on for a while,
precisely because of arguments about those levels.