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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) not only on securing this debate, but on his role in promoting community transport in his constituency. I know that he has been a champion of this transport service.

Community and voluntary transport have a key role to play across the whole country, in both urban and rural areas. I do not want to disappoint my hon. Friend
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the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), but I fear that his proposal would require an excessive subsidy to make it viable. We are at present focusing on bringing community transport schemes into being under existing viable projects, as he knows because he was present at our debate earlier today. I hope, however, that the kind of scheme to which he referred will become viable in future.

The challenges might vary, but the need for transport for those who are socially excluded for reasons of income, gender, race, disability or geographical isolation is always there. The community and voluntary transport sector has been at the forefront in helping to meet those people's needs. Indeed, the services that it offers have developed and evolved over many years, particularly over the past decade, with enormous changes to their scale, scope and range, and to the professionalism of those providing them.

The breadth of the community transport sector's activities is impressive, and it is perhaps too easy to lose sight of the sheer scale of the operation. The Community Transport Association, which represents the majority of schemes across the country, estimates that there are some 5,000 schemes in the UK, which between them run about 60,000 minibuses. They do so with the help of about 250,000 volunteers and 10,000 full-time paid drivers. I take on board the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire about the difficulty of recruiting volunteers; many organisations face that problem. Together, the schemes deliver some 5 million trips for almost 2 million people with mobility problems. Any transport provider would be proud of that record. It is perhaps all the more laudable when we consider that this activity is taking place in the voluntary sector. However, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, funding for the sector is not straightforward, and I fully appreciate the difficulties to which uncertainty over future funding and the complexities of funding applications can sometimes give rise. We shall certainly consider those issues.

This brings me to the issues surrounding rural transport services. Rural travel patterns have changed markedly over the past 30 years. We have seen a significant growth in car ownership in rural areas. Public transport had become a marginal form of transport, and people's journeys became longer as the number of local shops and services declined due to the consolidation of essential services such as health care, post offices and banks. For people without access to a car, that meant increasing difficulties in accessing employment opportunities and essential services.

This lack of accessibility is a significant cause of social exclusion in rural areas, and we recognise the need to improve the transport infrastructure and to enhance rural accessibility. The measures that we are taking are having a positive impact. New and enhanced bus services are being delivered across all rural counties, improving the links between market towns and halting the decline in bus use in rural areas.

Over the past five years, we have more than doubled local authority funding for transport projects. For those authorities with extensive rural communities, considerable funding is being directed at rural areas. An important ingredient of achieving rural renewal is good-
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quality rural bus services. We have specifically targeted more resources to improve rural bus services. More than £50 million will be spent this financial year alone on the rural bus subsidy grant. More than 2,200 new and enhanced bus services are now being funded from this grant across England, on which some 29 million passenger journeys are being made per year. We have succeeded in giving a much-needed boost to transport links for many rural communities. Our "Future for Transport" White Paper announced the continuation of the rural bus subsidy grant beyond April 2006.

Additional resources for conventional bus services are not the only answer in rural areas. Solutions need to be tailored to local circumstances. We want better targeting of resources by local authorities to meet accessibility needs, greater promotion of rural transport services and a more joined-up approach that links public transport and less conventional services

David Taylor: The Minister refers to a more joined-up approach, and at the beginning of her speech she was kind enough to refer to my intervention. Does she acknowledge that there is a possibility of joining up and integrating bus and rail services in some parts of the country? Will she review with her officials the costings for the national forest line running between Leicester and Burton, through North-West Leicestershire and South Derbyshire, because the passenger figures that produce the prime income are excessively bleak and were drawn up at a time when the two districts involved were much less developed, in all sorts of senses, than they are now?

Charlotte Atkins: Certainly, I will be happy to accede to that request. I have not seen the detailed figures, and I would be only too delighted to examine them.

Detailed local transport planning and accessibility planning guidance was distributed to local authorities at the end of last year. It asks authorities to produce accessibility strategies as part of their next local transport plans, which should include their visions and objectives for accessibility based on an assessment of the needs and problems of the area. The strategies should also suggest how initial priorities will be tackled. The Department has a number of initiatives aimed at supporting the community and voluntary sector in rural and urban areas, and is currently reviewing the permit regimes relating to the community transport sector in order to reduce the barriers to further expansion

Mr. Todd: On that point, I referred specifically to considering partnerships with local employers on transport packages. In my area, for example, a major employer such as Toyota, which obviously produces motor vehicles, would, I am sure, welcome an opportunity to work with other transport providers to provide appropriate transport to bring its employees in and out of work.

Charlotte Atkins: That is absolutely right. We should not forget the bicycle in this respect, as there are tax incentives for employers to provide bicycles to employees at good rates, to ensure that they encourage employees to come to work by bicycle rather than provide them with a car parking space. There are many ways in which employers can encourage sustainable transport policies.
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One of the most significant initiatives has been the extension to many community transport operators of the bus service operators grant. Since its introduction in May 2002, more than 800 community transport operators in England have become eligible, and I understand that all the Derbyshire schemes are now claiming. This is a continuing grant providing the organisations concerned with significant help in meeting their operating costs.

With regard to the interests of rural communities in particular, since 1998 the Department has provided significant levels of funding to improve the provision of bus services in rural areas. The rural bus challenge scheme, which has funded 300 projects, has been successful in making possible the development of a wide range of innovative schemes. It has helped many successful projects to become established and to reach the stage of being strong candidates for mainstream funding from local authorities or other sources. It has demonstrated the potential, in particular, of flexibly routed and demand-responsive services in the meeting of local transport needs. More specifically, the Department provided nearly £500,000 for the 2003 rural bus challenge competition for four different rural transport schemes in south Derbyshire involving community transport providers. While we have helped to stimulate many of those initiatives, I acknowledge the hard work and dedication that community groups have invested in improving the quality of life for the many people who rely on them.

Of course we recognise that the funding regimes I have outlined do not provide a long-term funding base for schemes, but that was never our intention, and we made it clear from the outset of the rural—and urban—bus challenge that it was never intended to be a source of permanent revenue support. The main aim was to show the scope for innovation and new approaches, and to get projects under way that would then become part of the mainstream in terms of funding. While I recognise the pressures on local authority resources for revenue support of buses, I should point out that overall Government grant has increased for this year by 7.3 per cent., and by 30 per cent. since 1997.

Some authorities clearly have an exceptional record of working in close and supportive partnership with community transport. Derbyshire is one such authority: its record is commendable and long standing. Others, however, have not yet recognised the value of working in partnership. Many are continuing to provide funding one year at a time. That gives no basis for planning or development.
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I believe that it is also important to engage community transport providers in the local transport plan process at a strategic level, in recognition of their contribution to public transport delivery. Again, I acknowledge that Derbyshire is at the forefront of that approach. The LTP guidance to local authorities emphasises the need to encourage active involvement by that sector, but too many community and voluntary transport providers continue to be treated as an optional extra in the transport mix. Those issues too are addressed in the accessibility planning guidance.

Where do we go from here in terms of funding? We all recognise that community and voluntary transport schemes are vital to the mix of transport provision. The Government want to do all that they can to ensure that such schemes can thrive. As we have heard today, the funding issue is a key factor in determining how the sector can continue and develop effectively. It is important that for those involved to be able to share their experiences, learn from others and develop their funding policies with the broadest possible understanding of the sector. To that end, we have commissioned the Community Transport Association to produce a good practice guide to funding. The association is due to deliver the guide early this year, and we intend to make it widely available to all involved. Moreover, the funding issue will no doubt be considered in the context of a research project that we have commissioned to look at the role of community transport in reducing social exclusion. One of the aims of that work is to identify and evaluate the funding regimes available to the sector.

As part of our commitment to the compact with the voluntary sector, we have now completed the "working in partnership with the voluntary and community sector" strategy and action plan. That document outlines how the Department has met, and will continue to meet, the aims of the compact. Through continued liaison with the sector, we will obtain views on the Government's transport agenda and on barriers that voluntary organisations face in providing a full and sustainable service. A community liaison manager has been in post for six months to deal with that.

Our role is to provide a policy, regulatory and financial framework at national level so that the transport system works for everyone. That is a challenging task, but one that we are committed to completing.

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