Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 110-119)




  110. Gentlemen, can I thank you for being very patient. May I ask you first to identify yourselves for the record.
  (Mr Welch) Brian Welch, Head of Sustainable Transport, Northamptonshire County Council.
  (Mr Chorlton) Edward Chorlton, County Environment Director and Deputy Chief Executive, Devon County Council.
  (Mr Cross) Tony Cross, Head of Transport Services, Lincolnshire County Council.

  111. Thank you very much. Can I ask you if any of you want to make a personal statement first, please.
  (Mr Chorlton) If I could make, on behalf of the three of us, just four quick points, if I may.

  The first is to say we are all agreed that the Rural Bus Subsidy Grant and Rural Bus Challenge have been a major, positive issue in terms of progressing rural buses, probably the biggest for 50 years in terms of actually making a difference. In my own case in Devon, that has resulted in nearly 900,000 extra passengers.

  112. 900,000?
  (Mr Chorlton) 900,000. Parishes which only had a weekly service now have a daily service have gone up from 46 per cent to 70 per cent. Similarly on education and worktime links, they have gone up from 40 per cent to 58 per cent of parishes, so a major movement forward. Second point, however, is that we are all concerned about inflation increases in tenders, which are putting those successes under pressure. They are quite high, certainly averaging in our case 30-40 per cent, and even as much as 100 per cent, and that is actually causing some reversal of the earlier gains. The next point is in terms of the bus companies. We understand why they concentrate on urban and inter-urban services, but they do tend to concentrate on their existing passenger base, whereas we are looking at new passengers, either car drivers or the socially excluded, so we have a slightly different approach. The final point really relates to the first point, and that is that we are very clear that in terms of deep rural areas, there is no alternative to subsidy and innovation. There is no possibility of more commercial services in those sorts of areas.

  113. That is helpful, Mr Chorlton. Perhaps I could ask you particularly first. You have so many parishes where you have less than a population of 1000. You are obviously not going to be able to exist. What is your future of public transport in a County like that?
  (Mr Chorlton) We see our future as a mix: commercial services, both express and local, contracted services or subsidised services, similarly, and then a mix of issues such as flexi-buses, fare cars are very important, community transport—Ring and Ride, and so on. One of the critical issues, rather than talking about bus services, is talking about public transport. A fare car is public transport, and the particular issues for us is how we can ensure that demand responsive services can operate as freely as possible, rather than being constrained by various parts of the 1985 Act, which was not written with that in mind.

Mr Stevenson

  114. To Mr Welch, please. Can you describe the problems you have faced recently over service withdrawals?
  (Mr Welch) Yes, certainly. The problems we have been having are mainly in medium sized towns, in the towns where traditionally there has been a commercial bus network, albeit during the daytime, 7 till 7. In those towns, and there are three in our County, we have seen, in one town in particular, significant withdrawals of five out of the seven services, which have, effectively, at short notice and with great pressure on our revenue budgets, we have had to secure very difficult services like housing estates to industrial estates and services from some of the more remote housing estates to the Town Centre. That has put great pressure on our revenue budget, as I say, at short notice.

  115. Yes. Could I press you a little further on that, because according to our information, and I think you just confirmed this, we are talking here about, for example, in Corby, five out of seven of the commercial routes. How would you define, from your point of view, commercial routes? Were they subsidised in any way, shape or form, or were they purely commercial routes?
  (Mr Welch) Prior to October 2000 we were spending about £25,000 per year in Corby supporting very few journeys, not services as such, but journeys. The remaining services were, by and large, commercial. Suddenly, with only four months' notice, we were faced with having to find £175,000 to maintain those services which were once commercial but proposed for withdrawal.

  116. So are you suggesting to the Committee that almost overnight, what had been a commercial service operating became non commercial, and that the company, the operator, threatened, and indeed did withdraw?
  (Mr Welch) From the County Council's perspective, yes.

  117. Did they give any reasons for that?
  (Mr Welch) The reasons were that the service was not meeting the returns they are required to make.

  118. Which company was it?
  (Mr Welch) Stagecoach.

  119. Stagecoach. Do you know the rate of return they required on those services?
  (Mr Welch) We have heard anecdotally anything between 10-15 per cent.

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