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15 Jan 2003 : Column 269WHcontinued
Andrew George (St. Ives): I am pleased to have secured this debate, and having had one on exactly the same subject on 8 January 2002, I am pleased, too, that so many people have turned up to what is now my annual debate. It is good to have an opportunity to assess the Government's progress against the measures that I set for them last year. The Government set targets for themselves, but I set mine for the Minister.
I could use valuable time in this 90-minute debate congratulating and thanking the Minister for investment in rural transport, but I shall not do that because I want to raise difficult issues that need to be addressed. I am not blaming the Minister, but simply using this opportunity to draw matters to his attention in the hope that he will use his good offices to assist us in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which are the two areas on which I shall concentrate. The Minister could equally take up valuable time telling me that I should have congratulated him on the investment, initiatives, funds and subsidy grants, but I am sure that he will want to concentrate on addressing the points that I raise. I know that he considers such matters in a measured way and understands the challenges of transport to Plymouth and onward to Cornwall.
I intend to raise three issues. The first is bus services in Cornwall, where there are specific challenges. Such challenges vary throughout the country and the commercial and market environment in which bus services operate in Cornwall is unique because the geography of Cornwall is unique. Some solutions for other parts of the country may not apply there. I also want to speak about rail services into Cornwall and then to raise some of the issues I raised last time concerning important lifeline services to my constituents on the Isles of Scilly, who have specific concerns.
I can talk only about Cornwall when it comes to buses; although I know a little about bus services in other parts of the country, there is a particularly challenging environment in Cornwall. Cornwall is not just a long, thin peninsula with many small towns and no large urban centre. There are a number of peninsulas and many services run not between large market towns but down the peninsulas to small villages. That makes it extremely challenging to run services.
I appreciateas does the county council, which congratulates the Governmentthe rural bus subsidy grant and the rural bus challenge bid process, which enable the county council to seek further assistance to bolster services in Cornwall. However, the history of bus services in Cornwall shows that there are many challenges. Some 90 or so 24-year-old double-decker buses still run through Cornwall's lanes. There are but another 30 of those buses in the Government's south-west zone, so there are three times as many of those buses in Cornwall as there are in the rest of the zone. That demonstrates that the legacy of the system that used to operate presents a number of challenges.
In addition, there are very few profit-making routes in Cornwall. The main operator of services in Devon and Cornwall is First Western National, and I understand that ours is the one region in which services run at a loss. It is inevitable that the operator's reward is that it gets
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): My hon. Friend will be well aware that the crisis in the group is hitting very hard in the rural areas of my constituency, where the situation is worse even than it is in his constituency. Does he accept that that is a direct result of the very long period over which a virtual monopoly has developed? The group has been allocated more and more subsidised routes and school contractsthere is an additional crisis in that areaand some of the smaller, family-run operators have been driven out. That means that, when the big group pulls out, there is very little flexibility for anyone else to come in. It is the supermarket situation on wheels, and that is extremely dangerous. Does my hon. Friend accept that the situation is a direct result of the Conservative deregulation legislation of the early 1980s?
Andrew George : I agree entirely and I am well aware of the particular challenges and problems of running services in north Cornwall. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the failure to provide adequate services in that area, just as my constituents in west Cornwall have complained about buses not turning up. The regulatory environment in which providers operate arose from the Transport Act 1985. Liberal Democrat and Labour Members protested strongly about the deregulation of bus services, warning that it would create the sort of problems that we are experiencing.
While buses are failing to operate to timetable, there are also difficulties and challenges in meeting the six-minute window obligation. Only 90 per cent. of buses arrive within the six-minute window, which allows buses to be between one minute early and five minutes late against their schedule. When I complained about services in Cornwall and the failure of buses to turn up in some remote villages, the response was that the operators had met 99.5 per cent. of timetable service obligations. If that happened in metropolitan areas, one would not notice the difference. My point, which I have made to the company and the regulators of the service, is that services to remote villages, which may have only two or three buses a day if they are lucky, suffer most. There is not a failure across the whole service, but when services to remote villages fail, it has a substantial impact not only on individual users, but on the confidence of users, and that is clearly unacceptable. The failure to meet those obligations resulted in the transport commissioner fining First Western National £35,000. Although I support what the company is trying
There have been a number of proposals, and I congratulate First Western National on undertaking a review with the TAS partnership. On 16 December, it published a new proposal, which will result in its contracting its bus services to the more profitable routes and possibly withdrawing from the less profitable routes.
Andrew George : I agree with the hon. Lady, who has helped me to make my next point. The deadline for responses to the consultation was 6 January. Not only was the consultation launched as people were preparing for their Christmas festivities, but they had to respond by twelfth night, which was not the best scenario. Many people, including me, complained about the limited time in which they could write, respond and object to the document. The company has responded by being more flexible, and the county council has likewise recognised that it needs to give people more time to consider the proposals. Having said that, the county council has to prepare itself for implementation of the programme, which will result in First Western National operating between 80 and 85 per cent. of its original obligation.
The county council takes the view, with which I have some sympathy, that it is far better for a struggling company to operate 80 to 85 per cent. of services than struggle with its original programme. I agree with that, provided that the county council's tendering process successfully finds the kind of companies that my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has identified. If local, family companies can put in tenders that are acceptable to the county council, they are the companies to which we will turn to meet the service obligations on those scheduled routes. That process has already commenced, and by early February the county council will know whether the tendering process has resulted in an acceptable alternative to First Western National. It will be interesting to see whether First Western National tenders new, more expensive bids for providing services. That would clearly result not only in raised eyebrows across Cornwall but in considerable protests. There are some important challenges ahead.
On the routes that are being withdrawnthose in my constituency serve remote villages such as Zennor and Gwithianconstituents have written to me saying that they depend on those services. Indeed, in some cases people's businesses depend on those services. A hotelier from Zennor, for example, has written to me and explained that many of the guests arrive at his hotel by public transport, which means that the withdrawal will dent his business. Mr. Taylor, who is the secretary of the Gwithian residents association, has protested most strongly against the proposed withdrawal of services from Gwithian. The current services are essential to many people living in the village. They may be few but the bus service is very important to them, providing an essential service to Camborne.
I do not want a witch hunt in order to find culprits for what has been, in many cases, a failure of services during the past year, even though there are worries about the way in which the service will develop in the future. We could easily end up blaming the company, the county council or someone else. That is not what we want. The challenge exists, however, and we must raise our standards to respond to it. I commend both the company and the county council and encourage them to work closely in future to address some of the challenges ahead.
One option for the future in the far west of Cornwall is a rural bus challenge bid for a demand-responsive service in west Penwith. I understand that the decision on that will be made in early February, along with all others. That is a particularly exciting bid. Four such services operate in Cornwall, including in north Cornwall, which are successful, as far as I am aware. Will the Minister look favourably on that bid and consider it carefully?
I spoke to the Minister and his staff before the debate to make them aware of my next point. Last summer, I asked the Minister questions about the future of community buses. About 13 of them run in the smaller villages throughout Cornwall, and I worked for a community development charity when the rural transport development fund was used to purchase them. They all run extremely well, providing an essential and scheduled service.
The Government have undertaken consultation on the continuation of the fuel duty rebateI think that it is now called something elseavailable for community buses. It would be helpful to have clarification on what is happening with the entitlement to fuel duty rebate, especially for community buses that need to offer a flexible, almost demand-responsive, service on scheduled routes from village communities to the nearby recreational and shopping centres.
Representations have been made to me about regulations that mean that non-profit-making community groups are not entitled to pay their drivers. That has caused significant difficulties in that some community buses have not been able to operate as extensively as the operators would like. Voluntary car schemes are allowed to pay their drivers; although they do not receive a salary, they receive a return rate that is, strictly speaking, more than the car's running costs. Many such schemes have little difficulty finding drivers, but it is difficult for community bus schemes to offer enough financial inducement to attract drivers. Will the Minister address that point if he has time?
I mentioned train services in my previous debate, and I know that other hon. Members will want to mention them. During the five years of Labour Government, reliability has, if anything, got worse. I know that there have been particular challenges during the past couple of years but the Minister will have seen the figures. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) recently analysed figures showing the reliability of all operators' services to Cornwall and found that passengers suffered from 120 per cent. more delays and almost 50 per cent. more cancellations in 2002 than in 1997. That has dented people's confidence in services running to Cornwall.
First Great Western's response is that it plans to introduce a 200 mph service to Plymouth, but it would be far better for the company to walk before it can run. I do not care whether services take three, four, five or six hours to get to London, but what business users, other passengers and I, as a service user, want to know is that trains are going to arrive at the expected time. That should be the starting point of any changes to the service.
I do not want to detain the Chamber unnecessarily because I know other hon. Members want to speak. The Minister will be aware of the issue of lifeline services to the Isles of Scilly because I have raised it with him personally. Last year, I made the point that the Isles of Scilly receive no public subsidy for the helicopter, fixed-wing aircraft or ferry services that connect them with the mainland, which is 30 miles from St. Mary's. I gave figures that I will not repeat for subsidies now available through the Scottish Executive, which were previously available through the Treasury, to Caledonian McBride
Andrew George : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Subsidies were provided to Caledonian MacBrayne for services to the off islands in Scotland. That has meant lifeline service ticket costs for Scottish users significantly below those charged to those living in the Isles of Scilly.
Mr. Burnett : I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I agree that ferries are a vital ingredient of a sustainable rural and island transport policy. However, those ferries have to be built. The tendering process for the Torpoint ferries is now underway and Appledore shipyards in my constituency is part of that process. Does my hon. Friend agree that Appledore Shipbuildersthe last commercial shipyard left in Englandhas a record second to none, with an outstanding work force, product satisfaction and the finest quality ships built on time, at a fixed value-for-money price?
Andrew George : My hon. Friend sets me a challenge. He knows his constituency well, and he knows the quality and efficiency of the work in the Appledore shipyards. I do not doubt that he is correct, and I wish that company well in its future tenders, whether for the Torpoint ferry or other contracts.
The Minister may have views on the Isles of Scilly because he comes from a maritime constituency with shipping interests. One never knows but the Appledore shipyards may tender for the Scillonian contract as well.
I spoke about services to the Isles of Scilly last year, and the Minister rightly said that further studies should be undertaken on the options available to the Isles of Scilly concerning air and ferry services. Those were completed in April, and the Government said that they could not consider the issues under objective 1 funding, or match funding, unless the council of the Isles of Scilly produced a transport strategy. Councillors have run off and produced a transport strategy, which was published last month.
Unsurprisingly, that strategy has several options, which include the necessity of replacing the Scillonian III. It is quite clear to anyone considering the matterand I know that the Government have done sothat the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company Ltd. does not have the revenue stream to fund the replacement service between the mainland and the Isles of Scilly that modern users would expect.
Cornwall has a window of opportunity under objective 1 to put the matter right and make the investment, but match funding would have to be available. I urge the Minister to consider the issue carefully and not set the Isles of Scilly further hurdles to jump. Despite the studies, consultations and strategies that have been undertaken, the issue has not gone away. It still needs to be addressed, and I would be grateful if the Minister addressed it.
I appreciate that issues such as buses, rail and, certainly, transport links to the Isles of Scilly are challenges. I did not expect the Minister to come to the Chamber this afternoon with cheque book in hand or answers ready made, although of course my constituents will be deeply disappointed that he has not. However, I hope that he will meet me to discuss bus services, and perhaps he will come to the beautiful Isles of Scilly to meet the council and the operators of the service to discuss the transport links, so that the significant challenges faced by the community may be properly addressed. I thank hon. Members for listening to my case.
Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair): I remind hon. Members that the standing convention in Westminster Hall is to commence the first of the three winding-up speeches 30 minutes before conclusion. I ask those participating to bear it in mind that we have only 34 minutes left and to keep their comments as pertinent and as brief as possible, especially when making or accepting interventions, which undoubtedly prolong the agony.
Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), with whom I share west Cornwall, on securing the debate. I have been applying for an Adjournment debate on the issue for some months. Indeed, I felt rather like the unlucky lottery loserevery time I put my name down I knew that I would not be the one. It has been very frustrating. This is an opportunity not to be missed, so much so that when I met the Prime Minister last week, the top item on my agenda was transport issues.
I shall be honest and admit that transport in Cornwall is somewhat of a curate's egg. There are some very good parts, with which I am proud to be associated and with which the Government have been involved, but there is also a post-privatisation hotch-potch that has caused problems. More must be done.
The first issue that I want to raise is air links. The south-west has the lowest number of flights in the United Kingdom, not because the people in the south-west do not want to fly but because they lack the opportunity to do so. It is not helpful for people who live
Ryanair's popular daily service into Cornwall has proved that there is a real demand for a range of air links. Nevertheless, British Airways announced that as part of its restructuring it is selling off its link, which is primarily used by the business community. The service is profitable and so popular that often one cannot get on it. I have no doubt that the link will be bought but, in the meantime, the decision sends out negative signals about access to rural communities to people who may want to conduct business in Cornwall.
Let me give some examples of how Cornwall will be affected if the nightmare scenario occurs and we lose the link. The 2001 study for the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions concluded that losing the Newquay-Plymouth-Gatwick link would mean annual passenger disbenefitsthat means costsof £8.4 million if people were forced to use surface transport such as road or rail. It would mean 3,000 job losses in the wider economy of Devon and Cornwall. That represents a huge number of people in a predominantly rural economy such as ours in Cornwall.
People say to me, "Ah, but now we've got Ryanair." That does not provide the business service that people who fly on international routes need if they are to conduct business in the area. I tell the Minister that our party said in 1997 that we would use European Union regulations to protect regional flights. France uses public service orders to ensure that peripheral regions are connected. There is a campaign in Devon and Cornwalland countrywide, I have to sayto earmark a third Heathrow runway for regional flights, and I am inclined to support that. Government consultation is currently going on, although I understand that the Government are saying that EU regulations may not allow for the protection of existing slots because that could be seen as state aid.
The pressure on the slots is high and they are subject to heavy and extensive lobbying. However, if an airline ceases to use a regional slot, it should surely be ring-fenced for other regional slots and not given to international, and mostly trans-Atlantic, flights. There is also a campaign for regions to buy the slots. That is currently against EU regulations but I understand that the European Commission is minded to examine the matter. Will the Government and the Minister look into it?
We now come to roads. Goss moor is a high priority to my constituents. Anyone who has tried to get in or out of the county will know the nightmare that Goss moor can be. In the summer, it seems impossible to get through because of tourists coming into the county, although we welcome them, of course. In the winter, we dig up the road to repair it so that tourists can use it in the summer. The blockages cause everyone misery and I am delighted that we are moving forward.
A fantastic nature reserve, called, I believe, the Cornish everglades, will be created when the new dual carriageway is finished. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh, but that is what will be created. The needs of the Cornish economy will be well served when the new road progresses. It is a great success of which the Government can rightly be proud. The Highways
Mr. Tyler : As the hon. Lady knows, the section of the road is in my constituency. I would not want her to give the impression that a public inquiry is inevitable. Under the previous Conservative Government, as she will recall, there was considerable consultation about the stretch of road. Sadly, that Government stopped work on it as part of the road investment cuts that occurred at the end of their period of office. We could make rapid progress because there is broad support for improvements to the A30, and I endorse what the hon. Lady said about it. I also endorse what she said about air links, and the Minister knows that we had a useful exchange about that.
Ms Atherton : I am glad that we can agree about something. I hope that there will not be a public inquiry because I know that 99 per cent. of my constituents are 110 per cent. behind the scheme and pray daily for the opening of the road, as do I.
This year's transport settlement was excellent for Cornwall. The local transport capital settlement means that it will receive £18.5 million next year, and £150 million has been spent on improvements to the A30.
The other burning issue for Cornwall is across the border in our neighbour, Devon, on the A303 east of Illminster. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), has an interest in that. I tell the Minister that we need a resolution to the Blackdown hills issue as soon as possible. There is great news about the improvements to the A303 that were announced before Christmas, but not having a decision on the Blackdown hills is a real problem and a disbenefit to the region.
Now we come to railwaysoh dear. Virgin Trains has announced cuts to south-west links, and especially evening trains between Plymouth and Bristol. I am sure that the Minister is more than unhappy about that. It is also halving the number of trains stopping at Gloucester. That is a negative. I know that it is a matter for Virgin, but any pressure that the Minister could bring to bear would help.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): Is the hon. Lady aware that Virgin has not only cut the service but kept the published timetable in place? People will go to catch a train, because it is in the published timetable, but the train will not be there.
None the less, we want to double the number of trains. This September the combined universities project is taking its first students in Penryn. Thousands of studentsand more each yearwill need access, and we do not want them to travel by car. We want them to be on trains, so we need to double the number of trains. There is real potential, and I hope that Network Rail will get on with the work led by the county council.
Reducing journey times to London is critical, and rail must complement road and air travel, rather than be an alternative to them. We have had the farce about voyager trains and sea water at Dawlishthe Monty Python team could not have invented it, and nor should they. Will the Minister put more pressure on Virgin to sort out the problem? First Great Western's plans for the future include increasing to eight the number of trains a day to Cornwall. It also plans to cut journey times between Penzance and London by 12 minutes in the next two years. Oh dear me12 minutes hardly makes us feel that the company is getting to grips with the problems, does it?
I am aware of time and will talk only briefly about the subject of buses, which is high on the agenda in my constituency postbag. The Government have undoubtedly done great things in Cornwall with buses, including the new Bissoe Valley scheme, which has for the first time provided new bus services and a calling system to get the buses to come to individuals. That is a totally new experience for some of my constituents and is warmly to be welcomed.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I apologise to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for arriving in the middle of his speech. As hon. Members will know, my constituency is the only constituency in England that cannot be reached on foot from Westminster, however important it is to try. We were therefore particularly disappointed that the Minister's announcement at the end of last month did not mention ferries or offshore shipping, although we welcome the money that has been provided for the Ryde interchange. I do not propose to repeat all the points that I made in the debate last year on this subject.
I should like to update the House on the progress of the work following the cross-Solent study which reported in March 2001. The study was designed to investigate how assistance can be given for people crossing the Solent for health reasons or for education, training or job seeking, and has so far generated two schemes. The first is a trial scheme under single regeneration budget 6 to help unemployed people and jobseekers who are looking for work on the mainland. That scheme will benefit residents of the six wards in Ryde, which is only one eighth of the population of my constituency. The second scheme involves health and hospital transport, and it is being put together by the primary care trust. It is nearly ready to implement, and I am pleased to have been able to assist through my office.
Regrettably, no progress has yet been made on cross-Solent travel for the purposes of education, although I am informed that the Learning and Skills Council is now willing to fund transport if local courses are not viable. Many of my constituents share my disappointment that, 22 months after the report was received, the schemes are still awaiting implementation. It is also disappointing that those schemes will benefit only a small proportion of my constituents. They have to be unemployed, seeking work, live in Ryde or need to cross the Solent for purposes of health.
Cross-Solent costs are expensive. Young people and other travellers need to cross the Solent less expensively in both directions. We obviously want to improve our tourist trade. We find it difficult to understand why the Government are so energetic at promoting new airports in the south-east to encourage tourists to go to Malaga, the West Indies and goodness knows where, when they are not encouraging work to reduce the cost of crossing the Solent. The county council is legally empowered to subsidise cross-Solent fares, just as it currently subsidises bus fares, but despite a 13 per cent. rate
That shows the level of urgency with which this matter is being dealt, although it is not the level of urgency that I or my constituents would like. These issues have been raised not only with me but with my predecessor and my predecessor's predecessor. It would help if Isle of Wight council had a policy on cross-Solent fares. For years my constituents have wanted reductions in ferry fares but, as far as I am aware, the council has yet to put any concrete proposals to Ministers. In any response that Ministers give to the council, I hope that they will encourage it to present concrete proposals.
Finally, I wish to discuss car parking. That may seem a terribly parochial issue to raise but, at the beginning of the previous Parliament, Ministers said that they wanted car parking in towns to be reduced. They wanted a reduction in commuter parking and in parking for shopping purposes. That will be unrealistic in rural areas until there is a highly effective bus service. I am glad that the Secretary of State has reversed, or at least watered down, his aspirations to reduce traffic. I hope that he will also water down his aspirations to get rid of car parking in townsaspirations that my local authority is quoting as a justification for allowing houses to be built without adequate parking. That has led to the clogging up of the streets of Cowes, which is one of our key ports for people commuting to work on the mainland. The council has sold off car parks in Cowes and Newport because it says that the Government do not want local car parking to be provided and want an end to such car parking. I hope that the Minister will clarify the position for the benefit of the council and, more importantly, for the benefit of my constituents.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I shall try to keep my remarks as brief as those of the previous speaker. I wish to join those who have criticised Virgin's decision. I will say a bit more about that later. The decision has caused difficulties in the whole of the south-west and, I presume, beyond. We need to say to the Minister, loud and clear, that negotiations with that company are required at the highest level.
I want to start with buses. I am always pleased to come to a debate that has been initiated by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). This debate may seem like a rerun, because the people who speak will be more or less the people who spoke last time. However, there is no reason why we should not have an annual event to consider this important issue.
Many points have been made on the principles of how to improve bus transport. In my constituency in Gloucestershire, we have been able to make use of some of the Government's initiatives. However, there are a few caveats, and there have been problems with the
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Does my hon. Friend acknowledge the ongoing problems with the co-ordination of bus services because of the impact of competition on authorities? Sometimes, competitor bus services cannot co-operate on joint ticketing and joint timetables. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to get rid of such bureaucracy so that our constituents in rural and urban areas get the best co-ordinated, most appropriate bus services?
Mr. Drew : I was going to make those points, so I thank my hon. Friend for saving me the effort. There have been calls to establish a strategic bus partnership similar to the Strategic Rail Authority. It need not be a national organisation, but could be organised at a regional or sub-regional level. We need to recognise what is happening to bus services. They were fragmented under deregulation, so it is difficult to co-ordinate initiatives and the money made available by the Government. I hope that the Minister will try to find ways in which we can do some valuable work through greater co-ordination between local authorities, the bus industry and bus users.
We have a promising bus service initiative called village link, which is an interactive run-around. It is responsive to passengers' needs, which leads to a series of problems. By the nature of things, people have to be organised enough to know when to book the bus in order to get on it. Systems of communication need to be examined more effectively.
Problems with reliability and information bedevil rural bus services. We should solve the two problems together. I am not saying that we should have the same interactive kit that is on London buses at every rural bus stop, but it could be installed at the main bus stops. If people know that there is only a 10-minute wait for the next bus, they will wait. At the moment the problem is that they could be waiting 10 minutes or two hoursor three days in some places, although that is a different kettle of fish. We cannot overcome such problems immediately.
There are some good initiatives in my area. Dursley and Cam plan to run an interactive bus and draw down the money that I mentioned. We must not forget the voluntary sectorthere is a ring and ride in my area. We do not fund such services adequately or make enough use of them. The statutory services often dump on the voluntary services. In the unsavoury past, when the ambulance service was under pressure, the health transport people assumed that the voluntary bus service would pick people up and take them to hospital. That is
On the subject of trains, I have already made a plaintive plea about Virgin Trains. Virgin has dropped plans to run the Paddington to Birmingham service via Gloucester and Cheltenham, which has caused a new problem. Hindsight is always a wonderful thing, but Virgin was going to run that service without any subsidy at all. It has pulled out because it cannot get space at Paddington. We must now find another operator to take on the service, and it looks likely that Wessex Trains will be able to do so, but it is seeking a subsidy of £250,000 from the Strategic Rail Authority. Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider that case? We cannot afford to lose those trains, for all the reasons identified earlier.
Such problems give the railways a bad reputation. Anybody who has travelled by train to Paddington over the past couple of months will know that the station has had what can only be described as a nervous breakdown. The station coped commendably well with all the problems that came on the back of the Paddington rail crash, but more recently there have been new problems with flooding and signal breakdown. Those problems are regular rather than occasional occurrences, and we must do something about them. It would be wrong to blame the operators, because these are infrastructure problems. The signalling must be renewed.
I make my usual plea for the redoubling of the line between Kemble and Swindon, through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown). Now that the fourth platform is open at Swindon there are extra trains going through, and we must avoid a bottleneck further along the line.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will put pressure on the SRA, which is considering the matter. There is money available, but I gather that the scheme must be evaluated. I am grateful to my friend Clive Morforth, who always brings rail problems to me. It is people like him who make us appreciate that trains are needed.
I come now to a different subject. I join the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) in his plea for Appledore Shipbuilders. I met representatives of one of the shipping companies in my constituency, which contains a big port called Sharpness. That company would join in any appeal for more British build and more repair. It would also ask that we recognise that the commissioning of transport in this country through shipping is greatly in need ofI will not say renationalisinga bit of patriotic fervour, because all the competitors seem to be able to overcome state aid, whereas we do not.
Mr. Burnett : I am delighted to hear of the hon. Gentleman's support for Appledore Shipbuilders. He has hit on the crucial point that competition must be fair and, in order to be fair, there must be the same ground rules. Does he agree that it is grossly unfair when United Kingdom shipbuilders and other companies are competing against overseas companies for orders? It is
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the annual debate on rural and island transport. I also welcome the Minister to Westminster Hall. I have often referred to him as the Minister with special responsibility for Westminster Hall. Last week, we tried to have a debate on marine pollution without him, but it did not really work, however hard the Minister for Rural Affairs tried, so I am delighted to see him back today.
I was slightly fazed to see the preponderance of hon. Members from the south-west of England and, indeed, Cornwall, as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives reminds me. While remaining in the United Kingdom, it is impossible to get further away from my constituency than to visit my hon. Friend's end of the country. I draw attention to the number of hon. Members who have spoken about trains. My constituency has not a single yard of train track in it, so I do not consider that I am particularly well qualified to pick up on some of the points that have been made. However, it did strike me that the basic issues of planning and investment, co-ordination and integration are much the same wherever we go and whatever places are involved.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives started his contribution with remarks about buses, and his was a familiar story in many parts of the country. He was speaking about old stock running on unprofitable routes in rural areas. The point was first made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and picked up later by the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for South Swindon (Ms Drown), who said that such problems stem from bus deregulation in 1985. That is absolutely true.
Rural Britain is reaping a bitter harvest of deregulation. Although I accept that that was something that no doubt the Minister at the time would have opposed, the underlying problems caused by deregulation will not be fixed and will not get better on their own. I accept that the Government have undertaken several useful initiatives, but unless and until the underlying problems of integration anddare I say it, not being a big advocate of big government myselfregulation are addressed, anything else that is done will just be tinkering.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives referred to the difficulties caused in the Isles of Scilly. I was astonished to hear that there would not be automatic investment in new ferry infrastructure there. If there is, ferries will no doubt be built at the splendid boatyard that my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) advertised magnificently. I hope that the Minister will afford the islands in the
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) made a cri de coeurone that is close to my own heartfor public service obligation orders. I noticed that the Minister just managed not to wince as those words tripped off my lips. The hon. Lady rightly identified the importance of air links to rural and island communities for business and tourism. I sympathise with what she says about the withdrawal of British Airways. What happens to the slots in Gatwick and Heathrow for regional air services once they have been withdrawn? That is a familiar problem for those in the highlands and islandsBritish Airways used to operate a service from Inverness to Heathrow, but it was withdrawn. We only have the Inverness to Gatwick service left. If the Minister has anything new to say about a public service obligation on the Inverness to Gatwick route, I shall be equally interested to hear that.
Through ticketing and transferring from another operator on to a British Airways flight taking people elsewhere in the country causes problems for business. There are difficulties for tourism also. Advertising and marketing are not as readily available to smaller companies as they are to companies such as British Airways. I share the hon. Lady's frustrations, which other hon. Members have also outlined, at the implementation of EU regulations.
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will comment on landing charges at airports. Landing charges would be incongruent to smaller airlines that might come into many of the regional airports, particularly Inverness, to fill the gap left by British Airways.
Mr. Carmichael : Landing charges, in particular on the route operated by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. to which the hon. Gentleman refers, is an issue on which I could probably fill another 90-minute Adjournment debate. Although I sympathise with the issues that he raises, I shall resist the temptation to address them at length today.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) made a commendably succinct speech. He is one of a select group of three of us in the House who have island constituencies. I hope that the Minister will address his points. He made the link between transport and jobs and training. Likewise, the hon. Member for Stroud spoke of the need to co-ordinate bus authorities. He made an interesting point about interactive bus stops and highlighted the importance of the voluntary sector. I endorse that point. We have a dial-a-bus that seems to struggle from one financial crisis to another. None the less, it is a service that is appreciated by many in my constituency.
My constituents routinely pay between 10p and 20p a litre more for petrol than people on the mainland. If the price rises, they will be hit disproportionately because as well as higher prices they must pay fuel duty and value added tax. If the price is higher to start with, we end up paying even more. Many of my constituents are on low or fixed incomes and live in the remoter parts of island communities, and it is particularly regressive that they should get hammered in this way. I suggest to the Minister that this, along with so many other aspects of transport policy, is an issue of social inclusion.
I do not know who is to blame. The retailers blame the wholesalers, and the wholesalers blame the distributors, who in turn blame the retailers. It goes round in a vicious circle. The Petrol Retailers Association made several suggestions to me that it might be possible to franchise the selling of petrol. Recently, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs suggested that the vehicle excise duty rate could be varied in some areas to compensate. I hope that that suggestion gets a fair hearing from the Treasury.
We have heard from different Members from different areas about a variety of problems, but the fundamental issues are the same. I wish the Minister well in dealing with them, but judging by performance to date there remains a great deal to do.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate, and I congratulate all those who participated in it. I assure the Chamber of my continuing interest in transport: my husband works for an American airline company, which, I regret to say, does not have immediate plans to fly from Cornwall to the States. I also have interests in the Royal Automobile Club, Railtrack, Eurotunnel, British Airways, British Aerospace, and First Group plc. I hope that that qualifies me to speak today.
The personalities on the Front Bench may have changed since last year's debate on this topic, but the content does not appear to have changed greatly. Contrary to those who expressed surprise at the preponderant presence of Members from the south-west and Cornwall, I am delighted to note the number of Celts and Scots represented today. Perhaps that could form the new alliance in the House.
The main theme in the contribution of the hon. Member for St. Ives was parity of investment in public transport services. That is one of the themes that he explored last year, particularly as regards recognition of a public service obligation through possible public subsidies for air and sea services, such as those provided in Scotland. He did not rehearse the point that he made
Like many Members present, I represent a deeply rural community, containing four market towns and a large part of the outskirts of York. We know that the price of fuel has soared under Labour, and that has affected all forms of transport, particularly bus users and motorists. It is of most pressing concern to the road haulage industry. We took soundings from our contacts in Cornwall, and their points reflected the content of this debate. The service is of poor quality, rail journey times must be improved and roads, particularly the A30, could do with being dualled. The delays at Goss moor were heavily underlined by contacts there.
It was also put forcefully to me that the transport difficulties mean that crops, fish and other products from Cornwall cannot get to the markets quickly enough. However, rather than a handout, people want sufficiently modern transport links. Funding a replacement for the Scillonian ferry was certainly of great interest to them. I will return to my personal campaign to improve short sea and coastal shipping. That may be a way forward, and the Minister might like to support it.
Fuel tax increased by 6 per cent. in the Government's first three Budgets. Indeed, in the third Budget, the increase for diesel was 12 per cent., giving the United Kingdom the highest fuel prices in Europe. Our priority must therefore be to improve public transport. It is interesting that the Liberal Democrats in general, and the hon. Member for St. Ives today, place great emphasis on improving public transport, yet in certain areas, where the obvious way forward is public-private partnerships, they notably oppose them.
Labour pledged in its 10-year transport plan to increase the number of passenger journeys by bus by 10 per cent. in England by 2010. Contrary to what other hon. Members have said, I think it important to note that bus usage has increased since privatisation, particularly in urban areas, although it has materially declined in rural areas under this Government. They must say what the reasons are for that. In 2001 in particular, bus use declined in every area apart from London, Birmingham and eastern England. My question for the Minister is why.
It is commonly believed, and I firmly believe, that Labour is letting rural communities down. The £50 million that I gather the Government provided for rural bus services is a paltry sum compared to the huge amounts taken from rural motorists in fuel tax. For many in rural areas, a car is a necessity, not a luxury. According to figures provided by the House of Commons, some 37 per cent. of households in rural areas have two cars, whereas 40 per cent. of households in London and inner-city areas have no cars. That shows the dependence on the motor car in rural areas.
Miss McIntosh : In view of the time, I am afraid that I will not be able to accommodate the hon. Lady on this occasion. I place on the record how disappointing we find it that bus services have been cancelled as a result of what could be seen as a lack of Government funds meeting the right targets.
Labour now appears to want to abolish the fuel duty rebate. It was the Conservatives who first proposed extending the fuel tax rebate to community transport in 1999, so we were delighted to see Labour belatedly adopt that policy in its 10-year transport planwe can claim that as a Conservative achievement. In view of the Government's consultation, we should now like to know what the Government's proposals are for the future of the fuel duty rebate.
On rail investment, the 10-year transport plan promised that old standard rolling stock would be withdrawn by the end of 2004. Will the Government confirm that the 10-year transport plan targets for that will be met? We are also concerned whether existing track-side electricity supply will be powerful enough to run the proposed longer 12 to 15-carriage trains. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) raised the question of the reduced level of Virgin train services. What assessment have the Minister and the Government made of the impact of that reduction in services to the south-west and Cornwall on the local economy and employment prospects?
I should like to put on the record the fact that the reliability of train services has decreased. In 1997, one in 10 trains ran on time, but by 2002 the figure was one in five. The number of complaints from rail passengers recorded by the Rail Passengers Council last year rose by 146 per cent., so clearly all is not well on the railways.
We would like more freight to be moved by rail. We recognise the role that rail freight facility grants have playedthe take-up of those grants for last year alone was £30 million. Will the Minister reassure meand those who have put their concerns to methat the rail freight facility grants will continue?
Will the Minister respond to the statement by the senior Government adviser, Richard Bowker, the Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, that the £33.5 billion of public money earmarked for the railways over the next 10 years is running out, and that the expansion of projects that have already been identified has been put on hold?
Will the Minister support my personal campaign to increase the quantity of goods transported in and around the UK on water? Does he share my regret that both the amount and volume of goods carried by coastal shipping decreased dramatically over the past five years, and that fewer of those goods are now carried by UK-flagged ships? Some 10 years ago, 46 per cent. of all freight carried on coastal shipping was carried by UK-flagged ships: that figure has now decreased to 16 per cent.
My final question to the Minister concerns public service obligations. In this Chamber, some two or three months ago, we had a discussion on whether the Government would create such public service obligations for air services between Inverness and London. The Minister has been asked today whether he will consider creating public service obligations for air and ferry services between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly. If he is prepared to consider that, could he tell us what the public sector spending obligations would be, and how they would be met?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate, some 12 months after he secured a similar debate. I notice that the players in the debate today are similar to those who were here beforeI see some familiar faces.
The hon. Member for St. Ives said that it was a year since the previous debate, and that much had changed. I will tell him of three things that have changed, among many others. Local transport-planned funding in Cornwall has increased substantially. We have announced the cross-moor improvements, which I know will be welcome in his constituency, and the Dobwalls bypass, which is vital to his constituency and to Cornwall.
I was reading in my local newspapers last nightthe Plymouth Evening Herald and the Western Morning Newsboth of which are excellent, that the Government were going to be pressed by eight Liberal Democrat Members from across Devon and Cornwall. It is unfortunate that only two of them have stayed to hear the summing-up. Perhaps that shows that one must be cautious when putting out a press release. If someone were being unkind, they might say that that information was a little like a Liberal Democrat publication of their "Focus" leafletsabout 25 per cent. accurate.
The hon. Member for St. Ives also congratulated the Government on the great improvements in rural public transport, and I thank him for his comments. I will respond later to some of the specific points that he raised, but before that I will respond to points made by other hon. Members. We will do as we did before, and respond in writing on any matter that is not covered this afternoon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton), who was present in the previous debate, raised the importance of air links. There is no doubt about the importance of air links to the peripheral areas of the countryin particular, the service to her area of Newquay. We had a useful and interesting cross-party meeting yesterday at which we discussed the matter. I hope that the temporary uncertainty will be resolved.
I remember lobbying on this issue some 10 years ago with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and the then hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton. If my hon. Friend wants to head a delegation to see me on some of these matters, perhaps with the hon. Member for St. IvesI know how well they co-operate on important issues concerning CornwallI should be happy to see her.
I share my hon. Friend's concern about the time of rail journeys. Penzance to Paddington is an exceedingly long journey, but reliability and predictability are important to passengers as well as the time a journey takes. People want to know that a four-hour journey does indeed take four, not five, hours. That is more important than slicing a few minutes off the journey time. It is unpredictability that people do not like.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who serves a true island community, asked about car parking and planning. PPG13 sets out our policy on car parking. We want planning authorities to set out sensible local parking policies in rural areas. We have to find a balance between ensuring that traffic does not undermine and reduce the attractiveness of an area, and providing places for people to park, particularly where there is inadequate public transport. The hon. Gentleman needs to take up the issue with his local authority, as I am sure he has done. If he feels that our policy is not being implemented, I am sure he will come back to me or to the Deputy Prime Minister's Department.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who took part in the debate last year, made some good points, particularly about greater co-ordination between local authorities and bus providers. He would be interested to know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is now involved with the bus forum, which is bringing together all the players to co-ordinate many of the issues that my hon. Friend was talking about. I agree that they have been too dissipated and we need to bring those issues together.
My hon. Friend also referred to the weaknesses of deregulation under the Transport Act 1985. I can only agree with him. It was implemented by the party of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). I take it from her remarks that she is critical of what happened at the time. The hon. Lady shakes her head. She is not critical of what happened at the time, despite saying that it destroyed the bus services in her area, which is interesting. The Transport Act 2000 addressed some of those issues, certainly in England, by introducing powers for quality bus partnerships and contracts. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud should look at how they operate in his area to see whether improvements can be made.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) is now sitting on the Front Bench for the Liberal Democrats. He was on the Back Benches last time. We have here hon. Members representing the two extremities of the United Kingdom, from the top of the Shetlands to the southern tip of the country at St. Ives. I do not want to bring party politics into the debate. I am not one to do that, as you know, Mr. Cook. The hon. Gentleman accepted that much had been done and then said that there was much to be done, which I accept. I wonder what he would have said if we had here one of the other Liberal Democrat Members from the south-westperhaps the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), who has been given the task by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), the Treasury spokesman for the party, who was obviously given the job by his party leader, of finding £2 billion of spending cuts. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has thought that through; if there is £2 billion in spending cuts, some of which will fall on
I cannot let go the many little gems in the hon. Member for Vale of York's contribution. I shall pick up one or two. She talked about short sea shipping. That is an issue we are very involved with and we can see great potential for the sea around our shores taking some traffic off the roads. The hon. Lady will know that we have provided freight facilities grants to enable freight to be carried on inland waterways, too, and off the road.
The hon. Lady referred to the decline of bus use but, for goodness' sake, it was her own party that brought in such legislation. I emphasise that this Government introduced some of the rural and urban bus challenge funding that has brought new money and services to many communities. We did not hear anything about that in her speech.
The hon. Lady referred to the United Kingdom flag and the number of ships plying the sea around the country. However, under this Government, we have seen a massive increase of tonnage under the UK flag. She shakes her head, but it has doubled over the past five years. Her party did nothing about it. We saw ships drift from our flag, but now we have seen a massive increase in their return. I know that the Liberal Democrats will have to find some cuts, but the hon. Lady's party has promised the people of this country a 20 per cent. cut in the budget. We shall be reminding her constantly where those cuts will fall. How will the cut be achieved? Which services will be cut? Which services will be reduced?
Miss McIntosh : The hon. Gentleman is putting words into my mouth. There will be cuts not to services, but to bureaucracy and red tape. There is a good illustration in the magazine of the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers this month showing how much transport carried by UK flag ships has decreased under his stewardship as the Minister with responsibility for shipping. Has he had a chance to read it?
Mr. Jamieson : Yes. I have regular contact with NUMAST and it recognises that the number of ships on the UK flag has increased substantially. I should be interested to know where such cuts in bureaucracy will be made to give a 20 per cent. increase. Why did such matters never happen during those 18 years? It sounds like a policy that one has the luxury of talking about in opposition, but that could never form part of a Government's policy.
I say to the hon. Member for St. Ives that the Government recognise the importance of better transport and economic social regeneration in rural areas, especially in his constituency. It is a long way from anywhere. It is a little like the Shetlands. It is a difficult place to access and in which to set up new businesses and industry. Transport plays a vital role in such matters. The hon. Gentleman has recognised the fact that we obtained objective 1 funding for Cornwall. Some years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne met the Prime Minister and talked through the matter. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend argued the case strongly for Cornwall and the United Kingdom. It was largely the intervention of
Andrew George : The Minister's response has not reflected the consensual approach that I thought I was taking. There was a certain rewriting of history in his latter remarks. Does he accept the factwhether or not it be cross-partythat we are deeply worried about transport? Will he keep a close monitoring brief on the current bus service problems in Cornwall? Will he meet me to deal with links between the mainland and the Isles of Scilly?
Mr. Jamieson : Yes, I will. There is too little time left to deal with the latter point now. It is of such importance, so it would be better if we met with interested parties to discuss it. I accept his worries about the review of the bus services in Cornwall that is being carried out by First Group. I understand that it has stated publicly that its proposed new network will improve the quality and quantity of bus services. It will be up to Cornwall county council to hold First Group to its word and ensure that proper notice is given to people of any changes that take place. I understand that Cornwall will not be able to assess the budget implications of a re-tendering process or the result of the review until the beginning of February.
Cornwall has been particularly successful in bidding for money for buses. The hon. Gentleman made a point about us making an announcement on some of the rural bus challenge funding in about a fortnight. I will not make an announcement today, but certainly, the matter will be one our priorities.