Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): I wish to present a petition from the residents of Warden bay, Leysdown, Bayview and from holiday home owners at the eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey. The petition states:
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): We have an opportunity in this short debate to reflect both on a local south Derbyshire success story and on evidence of the success of a Government and local authority programme in my area, which, I am sure, is reflected to some extent in other parts of the country. That success has been based on a partnership between Derbyshire county council, supported by central Government fundingI shall expand on that subject later in my speechthe local, voluntary and professional management of the community transport service in Swadlincote, South Derbyshire district council and a number of parish councils in south Derbyshire, which have been involved in developing local transport solutions for their individual communities.
First, I shall provide a few raw facts. In 1997, Community Transport (Swadlincote), which had been in existence for some eight years by that time, carried 17,583 passengers in five vehicles. In 2004, the same service carried 72,683 passengers in 21 vehicles. All hon. Members will accept that that is a huge increase in passenger usage and in the scale and capacity of community transport in south Derbyshire. Community transport was operated over nearly 100,000 miles during 2004.
In 1997, the service operated out of a Nissen hut. Thanks to a lottery award early in the life of this Government, however, it now operates out of a modern, purpose-built garage, which has, however, become increasingly hard pressed for space as the service has developed. The garage has also provided a base for a number of innovative schemes to offer transport services to rural areas, and I shall touch on several of those schemes in my speech.
One such scheme, which I shall mention now, was prompted by the introduction of the new deal and my identification, along with the county council, of the fact that it was difficult for unemployed people in rural areas to obtain transport to get work or even to go to interviews and take up opportunities. A bid was put in to support new deal transport for people in rural areas, and the service was run for a number of years to support people with those needs.
Although I shall mainly concentrate on Community Transport (Swadlincote), I also want to acknowledge the role played by other voluntary sector transport schemes in the area. In particular, I want to refer to the social car scheme operated through the South Derbyshire Council for Voluntary Service, which completed nearly 2,000 runs in 2004 to those who need specific and personal transport, which is often required for medical reasons. Some 31 volunteers have given freely of their time, energy and vehicles to provide that important and personal service in the past year, and this is an opportunity to thank them and those who organised that service for their valuable contribution to community needs in south Derbyshire.
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Government help has been available on several levels. First, they have supported two rural bus challenge bids, which have directly helped Community Transport (Swadlincote). Since 1999, that help has secured the growth of the service until 2007the latest scheme has just been authorised for a further three years. In the first phase of the rural bus challenge, 30,000 additional passenger journeys occurred. People would not otherwise have been able to undertake those journeys, and they would have had to rely on their own private transport or lifts from other people.
The latest award£245,000 over a three-year periodwill consolidate the development of rural services and link to a specific award in the north-west of south Derbyshire, which is the most rural and remote part of the district, serving the areas around the villages of Hilton, Etwall and Church Broughton. This is an opportunity to pay tribute to the parish councils for those areas for their vision and practical work, assisted by others. I did a mailing to several parish councils in my area suggesting that they address local transport needs. I particularly congratulate the three that I mentioned and one or two others in the area. Findern, the village in south Derbyshire where I live, has also been active in taking up the opportunity to look closely at local transport requirements and then working with community transport on solutions.
Much of the area involved had virtually non-existent services. The bus service in Church Broughton was charmingly described as a "market-day" service. The traditional view of what was provided in rural areas was a bus service that went only once a week and was related to a market somewhere else in another town. That very rudimentary access to public transport has now been supplemented dramatically by access to dial-a-ride services and group services for individuals and groups in those communities.
The Government have sharply increased the funds available to the county council for more general support for public transport in Derbyshire. This is an opportunity to congratulate a Labour county council that was, with substantial justice, classed as excellent in the last three comprehensive performance assessments. It has used the additional funding extremely well. Part of it has gone towards supplementing additional scheduled services in the area, for example by deepening the coverage for weekends and evenings, but a very large proportion£134,000 last yearhas gone to Community Transport (Swadlincote) to support dial-a-bus and group travel services throughout the district.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that community transport in south Derbyshire could well be integrated with some form of improved rail services linking Leicester via Coalville and Ashby-de-la-Zouch to Burton-on-Trent, and serving some of the villages in his constituency? Would some Government funding in that area repay the necessary investment, and could we hear from the Minister on that?
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbouring Member for that contribution. He is absolutely right. We have both campaigned actively for the restoration of passenger services through the southern part of south
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Derbyshire. Such a scheme would include a new station at Castle Gresley It is regrettable that a combination of narrowness at central Government level and occasional lack of vision from some of the councils involvedalthough not Derbyshire county council and my own district council of South Derbyshirehas meant that little progress has been made on the project, but it would undoubtedly improve access to the main rail transport network for many of my constituents.
The second initiative that deserves credit is that the Government now rebate fuel duty to community transport operators. To give the Minister an example of how valuable that is to a community transport service, in south Derbyshire in the past year it has saved £18,000 that could be applied to service development. It is an extremely valuable supplementary source of revenue that was not available before that change implemented by this Government.
The Government have made more flexible the rules relating to the operation of community transport. We all recognise that it would be entirely inappropriate to support through public funds direct competition with private sector bus providers. However, too narrow a restriction on the development of services can be unhelpful. When I spoke to Community Transport (Swadlincote) before speaking here this evening, I was told that although legitimate restrictions remain, it is now much more a case of defining instances where services may not be provided than of following the much narrower path of very precisely restricted services that could be provided by community transport.
I welcome that change of tone and balance in the regulatory framework in which community transport operates. Much of the development of group travel services, which has grown rapidly in south Derbyshire, providing, for example, door-to-door services that deliver frail passengers to shopping centres in nearby towns, reflects that more liberal approach of dealing with community transport in a more permissive environment than previously existed.
I would personally welcome a further examination of the restrictions on community transport, especially the way in which it could work with employers to develop sustainable travel packages for employees. I should like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to reflect on that. There is much to commend the way in which a small, flexible operator could work with employers to develop packages to bring employees to work. I can remember working in a company that operated a bus service for its employees around the town where most of them lived. That has gone out of fashion. However, there is now an opportunity to reflect on what a neat and nimble-footed operator such as Community Transport (Swadlincote) could do with local employers to improve the sustainability of transport options for employees in the area.
It is worth adding that the massive development of service and the growth in passenger numbers has been achieved while maintaining excellent relations with private operators, both private scheduled operators and those who offer coach services in the area. People get on well together, understand the differences between their businesses and I have come across no complaints about that. Indeed, offers of co-operation have sometimes been made and much appreciated.
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Is there any cloud on that undoubted local success? I should like the Under-Secretary to give some thought to a couple of matters. The first point is mainly a matter for local initiative but the Government could examine ways in which to facilitate it. I am proud to say that south Derbyshire is now generally an area of relative prosperity. South Derbyshire district has the highest average income in Derbyshire. Employment is high and rising. That means that recruiting volunteers, who play an important role in supplementing the activities of community transport's paid employees, can be tough and rewarding paid staff sufficiently to retain them can also be difficult. Opportunities for other employment abound in the area.
The county council has recognised the problem and is trying to develop a package of promotions that will attract people to the important roles of, for example, assisting disabled users, which need to be filled. It is normally helpful to have a volunteer to supplement the work of the driver and others to help people to get in and out of vehicles. It is hard to get people to fulfil those critical functions.
The second point relates directly to central Government responsibilities. While the range of services that Community Transport (Swadlincote) offers is secure in the medium termI have mentioned 2007for the rural services in particular, much has depended on the success of bids to central Government. As with any project based on that initial fundingI also have a mini Sure Start scheme in Derbyshire that suffers from the same problemthe start of the process is pump primed, but a way of mainstreaming the funding support must be found so that the service can continue to develop and be retained.
I urge the Under-Secretary to initiate discussions on how to structure a transfer of funding responsibility over time, subject to quality tests on the services supported. All the evidence that I have seen suggests that Community Transport (Swadlincote) is doing an absolutely fantastic job in serving a large number of people who are disadvantaged, either because they live in a remote rural location or by their disabilities or other requirements, and are therefore less able to use public transport.
Community transport in south Derbyshire has achieved huge growth across a wide range of services, and it has started to demonstrate that there is a huge, unmet demand for public transport in the area. It deserves greater certainty in its planning, and if the Government take the steps that I have described, they will be able to offer it that increased security, which will allow it to build on the tremendous successes that it has already achieved.