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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500-519)



  500. Oh. Did you give him the minutes so he knew what he was talking about?
  (Ms Tyler) He has been closely involved throughout our work. We have just published an interim report which sets out our analysis of the problem together with a few ideas for consideration and we will be publishing firm policy recommendations later this year but they will be subject to decisions emerging from the Government's Spending Review. A significant part of our project has been about buses because they are the main means of public transport for people from low income groups. We will also be contributing to the review of bus policy and subsidy that was announced in the Budget. I have just taken up post as Head of the Social Exclusion Unit, I have been in post for a few weeks, and therefore my two colleagues, who have been closely involved with the project, are here to answer more detailed questions.

  Chairman: I must say that is very clear. Quite surprising.

Mr Stevenson

  501. I think the Social Exclusion Unit describes the current transport spending as "regressive". What do you think Government should do to significantly redress the balance and improve social inclusion?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) It is clear that nine out of ten journeys by public transport amongst low income people are by bus and if you look at the spending distribution low income people benefit less than other income groups. Our job has been to look at things from a social exclusion perspective. In terms of looking at the overall balance between different modes and different groups obviously DTLR have to factor in the economic environmental costs and there are obviously pressures around safety and other issues, so that is something they will have to look at. In terms of specifically how you could factor in social exclusion more prominently and maybe narrow some of these inequities, one of the issues is about looking at transport appraisal mechanisms, ensuring that it actually factors in the social costs like missed health appointments and so on. One of the difficulties is we do not know how to factor those in and quantify them and there is a lot of technical work DTLR will have to do to try and develop that understanding.

  502. Does there need to be a dramatic and urgent move away from Quality Partnerships to Quality Contracts to achieve those objectives?

  (Mr Gurumurthy) What we say quite clearly in the report is that at the moment we cannot really tell whether Quality Partnerships or Quality Contracts are the best model because we have not actually tested the Quality Contracts outside London. Although there are lots of assertions about different models and their success it is quite difficult. We do know that there are certain challenges: rising fares, network instability, network contraction, lack of integrated ticketing, all the things you have heard about. Quality Contracts could play one role in tackling those and, as the Minister said, it is something that potentially could be tested out and may be a step forward. Another way of tackling them are through things like limiting the times at which operators can make decisions on timetables to a few times a year or sorting out some of the issues around competition. I do not think we can make a decision on which system is inherently better unless we have actually got the evidence of which one works in practice.

  503. I understand what you are saying. Would you go so far as to accept that the local authorities who are critical in this report, their ability to actually have any meaningful control whatsoever over the issues you have identified at local level is severely compromised without Quality Contracts?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) We have seen a lot of good practice on the ground. There is a good example, for instance, in Nottingham where you have got a Kids for a Penny scheme where a bus operator has taken the lead and done something very innovative to get families back on the bus. We have seen good practice so I do not think it is fair to say the system is unworkable. What we are saying is that we need to test out different approaches and only then can we make a decision on which system works better in different circumstances.

  504. Is the target to increase the total number of bus passengers by ten per cent in the 10 Year Plan going to lead to a reduction in social exclusion or will it just lead to improvements in services on the main routes?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) It is difficult to say what hitting the target will mean in terms of tackling social exclusion. Clearly it is very important that bus patronage grows, not least for congestion purposes, and given that a large number of people on low incomes use the bus, the fact that more people use it would obviously be good sign of improving service quality. What we said in our report is we need different ways of measuring outcomes through things like accessibility audits where you actually have a range of indicators like fear of crime in and around bus stops, the proportion of people within 30 minutes travelling time of a hospital or the key employment sites, things like the proportion of accessible vehicles. This range of indicators will probably provide a more meaningful measure of access and tackling social exclusion.

  505. Does the Government need to set targets for local authorities to abide by to ensure that social exclusion and transport problems are addressed?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) I think we are quite clear that historically social exclusion has not been given due weight in policy. The focus has been primarily historically on economic and environmental objectives, so I think that is important. One of the options is for local targets to be set within the Local Transport Plan on a range of different things.


  506. Mr Gurumurthy, even at your machine gun rate the question was not what has happened historically but is it a good thing?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) We said one of the ideas under consideration is to have local targets on accessibility which would be measured by a basket of indicators.

Mr Stevenson

  507. And who should set those targets? Should it be Government or should it be the local authorities themselves?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) At the moment I think it would be very foolish to say "here is a national standard on accessibility" because, given the geography, that would vary so much between urban and rural areas. What we are saying is that potentially you could have a national requirement for local areas to develop a baseline and set targets.

  508. That is very clear. Finally, given that you have made suggestions in your report and so on, and that is very helpful, would you think the Government should be advised that such things as the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, which is concentrated on the most deprived and socially excluded areas, should be made more flexible so that it could be used in certain circumstances to meet those targets that local authorities may set themselves to address the whole issue of social exclusion in terms of transport?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) The Neighbourhood Renewal Fund is an unhypothecated grant, it does not actually tie the local authority to fund any specific schemes. We do actually know that some Neighbourhood Renewal Funding is being used for a whole range of things from transport measures, to police, to all sorts of things. I do not think the problem is restrictions on the NRF.

Mr O'Brien

  509. Arising out of your report, and I notice there has been a lot of research done, which areas are you concentrating on for research?
  (Ms Dominian) We have done two things in terms of trying to give the evidence base to our report. We have actually asked people in deprived areas and more generally what are the transport barriers to them accessing learning, health care, work and we have asked for some proportions on that so we can get an idea of the scale of the problem. For example, we could find from that information that about two in five Jobseekers cited transport as a significant barrier to them obtaining—

  510. In what areas did you canvass the people?
  (Ms Dominian) That was done on a national basis from a nationally representative survey.

  511. How did you do the survey?
  (Ms Dominian) The ONS did that on our behalf through their survey mechanism.

  512. I see.
  (Ms Dominian) We have also done some transport area studies which looked in some depth in particular areas at all the different issues we are talking about, how it was that people could access health care and—

  Mr O'Brien: I read that. I was concerned about the areas that had been canvassed and now you are telling me it was done by ONS.

  Chairman: You could give us a short note on that telling us the areas, what you did and what questions.

Mrs Ellman

  513. Could you give me one example of how you have changed Government policy on transport and one example of how you have changed or influenced the Local Transport Plans?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) Firstly, I think it is worth saying we are at the interim report stage here so we are putting forward ideas under consideration and it will only be following the Spending Review that any final recommendations, which will be agreed Government policy, will be taken forward. As it happens there has been some progress on one particular measure which emerged out of the Budget which was 5 million to go to the 63 Action Teams for Jobs area, particularly for transport for work. The second thing that emerged from that was personalised travel planning services in Jobcentres so you can go in and look at your job vacancy but also see whether you can get there. Those are two specific examples of quite early wins, I think.

  514. What about the Local Transport Plans, have you influenced any of those at this stage?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) Clearly the second wave of Local Transport Plans will only come in in 2006. We are working very, very closely with DTLR on how this idea of accessibility and accessibility planning can be incorporated in that. As yet that is still an idea under consideration.

  515. What about people's access to health care and social services, things of that nature? What have you been able to achieve? I know what you have identified but is there anything that you have been able to achieve?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) One of the things that the Health Department is taking forward is a review to look at the mechanisms for getting people to health care because it is a bit fragmented at the moment with patient transport services, the hospital travel costs scheme, which just reimburses your costs, and also the Social Fund which allows visitors to claim some refunds back through the Benefits System. The Department of Health are committed to reviewing that and actually seeing how you can make a more customer friendly service and get much greater publicity so people know that they are entitled to get their fares back when they go to hospital.

  516. How important is the cost of public transport to people who have low incomes?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) In the survey evidence a lot of it focuses on network coverage and frequency and reliability as perhaps the main factors. Cost also comes out as a very important issue. There are two things to say here. Firstly, some people are often reluctant to tell people that it is the price of an object that is the problem because it suggests it is their problem rather than that of the service deliverers. I think that is one issue that we need to take into account. The second thing is if you look at particular groups, like learners, 16-18 year olds, we know that cost is a real issue and perhaps the primary issue for 16-18 year olds because on average they spend 10 a week in term time getting to learning. I think it does vary by different client groups.

  517. Is cost a bigger factor than availability?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) I think it is really, really difficult to separate the two and say which one is more important, to be honest. I do not think the survey evidence is conclusive on that. I think both of them are incredibly important. If you have got a bus service that is not going to the right place at the right time and is costly it is often both of those you experience rather than any one.

  518. The Office of Fair Trading told us that competition between bus operators on a route is important. What is your view on that in relation to socially excluding people?
  (Mr Gurumurthy) It really comes back to the same question on deregulation really. We have to assess whether a deregulated market works better than a Quality Contract and at the moment we cannot do that given that London is a slightly exceptional example given the situation. I think we would be in a better position to say whether that really is beneficial if we see Quality Contracts tested out in some other areas. It is worth saying, however, that in many areas—


  519. Do you think you are going to have the time to do this evaluation? It all sounds marvellous but in fact London has had the same system since the Bus Act was originally put on the statute book.
  (Mr Gurumurthy) I think it is important that we do move forward and run an evidence based approach because otherwise there are costs.


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