Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460-479)
MR JOHN SPELLAR MP, MR ALAN DAVIS AND MS SANDRA WEBBER
TUESDAY 21 MAY 2002
460. Quickly, on challenge fund initiatives, it has been suggested to us that the rural bus challenge and the urban bus challenge are dominated by two characteristics. One is that they are short term so what happens, particularly in terms of the rural bus challenge, after three years and, secondly, an enormous amount of local authorities' time is spent putting these bids together and four out of five are not successful anyway. Would it not be better for government to get rid of these challenges and the enormous amount of expensive time that is being wasted in putting them together by local authorities, and incorporate this resource into the local transport plan bid?
(Mr Spellar) I always have a concern about time spent in putting together bidsnot just here but elsewhereand am certainly prepared to look at that aspect of it. On the other hand, I think we have to say that both urban and rural bus challenges very much focus on these particular areas of difficulty that have been rightly identified by the Committee and others, but equally I think that, while schemes should not necessarily be completely cut off, you do have to build in time limits so that you evaluate what is working and what is not, because one of the objectives in some areas must be to try and move up to the critical mass which makes projects self-sustaining. You do need to re-evaluate. If you are still running well under your estimated capacity and not achieving the numbers you hope to achieve, you do have to question whether that is the appropriate service, and then you should look at the other issues that Mrs Ellman was rightly drawing attention to about ensuring access to a wide range of facilities and, also, the broader costs to the public purse of people failing to get access to those facilities.
461. Can I briefly take you through four distinct areas, starting with customer service withdrawals in certain parts of the country? It has cost £100,000 to £200,000 just to replace buses being dropped by companies and reinstated. Does the Department of Transport keep figures for the whole country on the cost of replacing routes that get dropped, and are these figures built into the 10 Year Plan?
(Mr Davis) We do not keep figures ourselves but we rely on a survey carried out annually by ATCO which has that information on increasing tender costs and also on service withdrawals, so we draw the information from ATCO and we would hope to draw it increasingly from the bus strategies and the annual progress reports we get on the transport plans.
462. Moving to tax exemptions in the budget for employers who encourage their work force to use public transport and buses specifically, these do not apply to park-and-ride schemes which are a hybrid journey for many people. Does the Department of Transport favour exemptions for park-and-ride schemes as well as bus services?
(Mr Spellar) I require notice of that question. I shall look into that one for you.
463. No policy on that then.
(Mr Spellar) I did not say we did not have a policy; I just said I will need to look into it.
464. Please do. On bus priority lanes, do you have a notional target for success for these? It cannot be in terms of the amount of red tarmac about; it must be in terms of the people transferring from car to bus. In some areas like Nottingham where there is a lot of red tarmac, what has happened essentially is that cars have been reduced to lesser areas to drive in. Is there a target for success for a bus lane scheme, and how is it evaluated?
(Mr Spellar) We look at the increase in the numbers using the scheme. As I indicated, Nottingham is something like 48 per cent, Birmingham 21 per cent, and other routes are in the high teens.
465. Are these the kind of figures you are looking for?
(Mr Spellar) Yes. Some of these bus priorities do not have to be for great lengths. Quite often it is to do with particular junctions and mechanisms for getting past and through those junctions, and they can have a considerable effect. Ipswich was an example of achieving very good figures as a result of that. We are slightly concerned at the delays in introducing a number of these schemes, and we are looking at how we can speed that up.
466. When will you bring forward regulations for decriminalising bus lanes outside London?
(Mr Davis) Very shortly is the answerthough Committees hate that sort of answer! We were hoping to do it in May; it may slip into June.
467. Is it essential that parked cars are banned from bus lanes, bearing in mind the Minister's remark that if someone stopped in a bus lane to pick up a paper there is no problem?
(Mr Spellar) I did not say that but I did say a lot of it is to do with time of day and with some degree of sense on that. The reason I put that was precisely the issue I raised earlier, which is there was considerable resistance from frontages, whether householders or businesses, to the introduction of bus priority. If that is handled sensitively and properly then I think that can be overcome. If, however, it is handled bureaucratically and insensitively then I think it merely fuels the opposition, and I think we have to look at the outcome, and how we are going to achieve a better system of bus priority.
468. Finally taxi buses, which are a norm in some countries. Is there any future for them in this country on registered local services?
(Mr Spellar) I think I have indicated on a number of times, sometimes to the frustration of the Chairman, that there are a number of flexible responses that we ought to be looking at in some areas which may fit the needs of those areas better and will achieve our objectives of mobility within those areas, which may be scheduled bus services but need not necessarily be according to local circumstances. It is not that I am looking for a cop-out on this at all; I am looking at what will most cost effectively achieve the desired mobility of communities in these areas.
469. Moving to bus priority lanes, if bus priority lanes are one of the ways that the bus operators believe we will increase bus passenger numbers, what action are you taking with local authorities or passenger transport executives who are not moving fast enough, particularly in urban areas, to get on with bus priority measures?
(Mr Spellar) We are pressing them on this.
470. What does "pressing" mean?
(Mr Spellar) It means putting to the local authorities that there is concern at the delays that are taking place, and we need to be pressing them harder on this.
471. When government presses local authorities it tends to use either a carrot or a stick or both, so what proposals are there, if any, either in terms of penalties for urban areas where there is no satisfactory progress on bus priority, or in terms of rewards if good proposals come forward?
(Mr Spellar) The rewards are, of course, that these are included in local transport plans and therefore the funding becomes available to them through the local transport plans. The detrimental side from their point of view is that their residents are not getting the service that they need and deserve, and are therefore being considerably affected by them.
472. One problem about bus priority lanes that you will be aware of is the enforcement of them and we have touched on the question of decriminalisation in London, but what proposals do you feel are being brought forward, perhaps in terms of camera enforcement, that would make enforcement of bus priority lanes easier for local authorities?
(Mr Spellar) Where there is still police enforcement of these provisions is quite interesting. I was in a town two or three months ago where the bus company had great difficulty in getting the police to take action until they persuaded them to undertake a pilot on that and found that many of the people who they were picking up for breaching the bus priority lanes were actually people they wanted for other matters because they had an overall disregard of the law and the police had become much more enthusiastic about it. Where it is not police enforcement but camera technology is available we do need to make sure that we are seeing the picture in context. I will give one example. If a vehicle is turning right and there is a queue behind it and the bus lane is clear then it would be a perfectly sensible and proper driving manoeuvre to go into the bus lane to get past the vehicle.
Chairman: If we can avoid all the circumstances in which people can use bus lanes it would be helpful.
473. My final point on that is that there is evidence, certainly in our city, that bus priority is becoming increasingly popular contrary to popular belief that it is the private motor car that is always the most popular. If that is the case and bus use is increased beyond your targets, can I ask whether the targets will follow the increased bus use or whether there will be a revision of targets before increased bus use takes place?
(Mr Spellar) I will be happy to deal with the problems of success in order then to be looking at more challenging targets if we are able to achieve the levels.
474. Smart cards, you would like to swipe the Committee's card, would you not, can you tell us anything about them?
(Mr Spellar) Smart cards, at the moment probably the most advanced scheme is the Prestige Scheme in London. There are, as you are probably aware, some slight difficulties about questions of inter-operability between the London scheme which got off the starting blocks quite a bit earlier and the national standards. There is quite a bit of work going on to see how those can be made compatible along with a number of other particularly urban areas where we are very keen on the use of smart cards. Particularly where we are looking at the interchange between various modes of transport it just makes that so much easier.
475. Is the Office of Fair Trading or the banks causing you any problems?
(Mr Spellar) I am aware from Willy Rickets that there is some concern that there may be some objections from the banks. I have to say we are not aware currently of that, therefore we are going to have to dig further into this. I do not know if the Committee have any information, of which I am not privy on this matter.
476. Perhaps I ought to move you on to the Bus Service Operators' Grant. The flexible services, they do not actually get this rebate. Is it not sensible in some of the rural areas to have a flexible dial up service for which they could get a grant?
(Ms Webber) We are preparing a consultation document just at the moment which will go out shortly on precisely the registration of flexibly routed services and the accompanying eligibility for what was fuel duty rebate. We are aware of the problem and we are planning to address it as soon as we can.
477. Lastly, you said you relied on the data which was coming back from the withdrawal of services. You did not give us an indication of how much that is going to cost public funds if we are losing commercial services and having to replace them with services which are subsidised.
(Mr Davis) some of the services which are being withdrawn are services which have been subsidised. Local authorities are deciding not to continue subsidising them. ATCO quote figures of something like 20 per cent. We have a research project at the moment to try and get a figure for the increase in tender costs which local authorities are facing.
478. There is increased tender costs but in some places there is a saving because the subsidy means the service does not go at all.
(Mr Davis) Some local authorities are deciding to stop subsidising services they have subsidised in the past.
479. Have you got a clear picture of the finances of this?
(Mr Davis) We are trying to get a clearer picture but we have a picture from ATCO and from the operators which we are trying to clarify.
1 Note by witness: "Most advanced" in the sense of most likely to be the first scheme to be rolled-out to users. Back