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13 Dec 2005 : Column 415WH—continued

Rural and Island Transport

1 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): It is a great pleasure to have this opportunity to raise rural and island transport. I welcome the Minister and thank her for her great courtesy in meeting the leader of the Isle of Wight council, Andy Sutton; the councillor with responsibility for transport, Ian Ward; and myself—supported by officers—on Wednesday 1 December, when we discussed a couple of the issues with which we on the Isle of Wight are concerned. I do not intend to reiterate the arguments made then, but I know that the Minister was impressed by the passionate way in which Councillor Sutton made the case for a highways private finance initiative. We are ready and raring to go with a highways PFI. Our highways have been neglected for many years, so if the Minister wants the island to be a rural pathfinder for such a PFI, we are ready and waiting at the starting block.

I know that the Minister cannot make any commitments at this stage, and she said that she would not be able to visit us while the question of a highways PFI was up for decision, but she would be very welcome to visit as soon as she has made that decision, whether it is the right one or not. However, I am sure that she will make the right decision.

Under its new leadership, the Isle of Wight council is much more dynamic and forward looking than its predecessor. One area in which it is taking a proactive role is in easing and improving public transport. Charlotte Cooke, the member of the Youth Parliament for the Isle of Wight, as well as many of her predecessors and the Isle of Wight Youth Council, which was elected last Monday, have repeatedly complained about the cost of bus fares on the island, especially for young people. One of their biggest gripes is that, once one is 14, one must pay the full adult fare, which is not the case in many places on the mainland. Councillor Sutton tells me that he is looking very hard at introducing a £1 flat-rate bus fare for travel anywhere on the island. That will do wonders for young people in improving their choice of school, improving access to facilities in Newport, Ryde and the other towns, and generally improving accessibility for the young, vulnerable and elderly. We are certainly pleased that that is going ahead.

The second issue that I raised with the Minister was cross-Solent transport. We have an excellent service; let   us be in no doubt about that. There are around 300 sailings a day of various kinds and at various times   across the Solent. However, they are costly for low-income groups. The hovercraft goes between Ryde and Southsea; the catamaran goes between Ryde pier and Portsmouth harbour; a car ferry runs between Fishbourne and Portsmouth harbour; the Red Jet runs between Cowes and Southampton; and another car ferry goes between east Cowes and Southampton. We also have the Lymington ferry. I will not go into all those services in detail.

I do not propose to ask the questions to which the Minister gave clear answers a fortnight ago, but I must reiterate the case for action to improve cross-Solent accessibility. The Minister's hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health said 18 months or two
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years ago that she recognised that islanders should not have to cross the Solent to get to a dentist. I am pleased to say that there have been slight improvements in that area. Not all islanders now have to cross the Solent to get to a dentist. However, they must cross the Solent for    other major medical interventions, including radiotherapy. A 30-day season ticket for the Red Funnel ferry—which is what one needs for a 28-day course of radiotherapy in Southampton—costs £180. That is a substantial cost, which is not met for everyone by the hospital travel cost scheme. That helps only the poorest. It does not help those visiting or accompanying patients. I met a resident in Newport earlier this year whose husband had died in a hospital in Portsmouth. She was very distressed because she could afford to visit him, she said, only twice a week before his death.

People also cross the Solent for education purposes: for higher education and for some aspects of further education that are not available on the island. I am anxious to ensure that a dialogue opens up between my local authority and the Minister's officials, so that the Minister will not in future be placed in the position in which she was placed this time. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced his Budget for elderly people to get free bus travel, that was costed without taking into account the cost of Isle of Wight ferries.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that perhaps one of the most crucial things for islanders, be they on the Isle of Wight or the Scottish islands of Na h-Eileanan an Iar or, indeed, Orkney and Shetland, is that a mile travelled at sea should be equivalent to a mile travelled on land, in that there should be some equivalence in the fares to overcome the disadvantage of island living?

Mr. Turner : I shall not go as far as the hon. Gentleman would perhaps like me to, but I thank him for his intervention. There are different costs to providing transport in different places on the mainland, so there could be no standard fare on the mainland, even if there were to be one on the island. I do accept, however, that people should not be significantly disadvantaged because they live on islands.

We do not have—I do not want to use the word "enjoy"—any subsidy for our ferries. That enables them to operate as quickly as they can and to respond to the needs of the market without an intermediary body. However, I would like the Minister's officials to work with officers of the Isle of Wight council to ensure that if another scheme comes up, we are not forgotten. I accept that, in the recent past, the council has not made approaches to the Department for Transport or its predecessors. As far as I know, it has not made any such approaches since 1997. I can therefore understand why the issue was not on the Department's radar, but I would like the Minister to accept that ferries are an integral part of an island's public transport network and to ensure that, in future, her officials are alert to our needs.

The Minister kindly agreed, when confronted with the costs of travel, to "reflect"—I use that word carefully. I am sure that, when reflecting, she will understand that a hospital car, which someone might use to get from home in, say, Alnwick to a hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne, is no use when travelling from Bembridge to Southampton.
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There are a number of related cross-Solent issues. One is the failure of the Strategic Rail Authority and South West Trains to co-ordinate changes to timetables with ferry services and Island Line services. For example, the Portsmouth harbour train from Waterloo sometimes terminates short of Portsmouth harbour. If it finishes at Portsmouth and Southsea, people miss their ferry connection. Ferries will sometimes delay if a train is running late, but they cannot delay too long or they will miss the connection with Island Line at the other end. Island Line is, I think, the premier service in the country as regards meeting the Government's punctuality targets. The problem is that those targets are not as useful for people on the island if the train departs before the ferry arrives, as they might be in other places. There is a crossing loop on Island Line only two thirds of the way along the route, so an asymmetric service has to be provided. Will the Minister consider whether the punctuality targets can be appropriate for our trains in our places, rather than a standard national target?

Another change that the SRA and South West Trains made without consulting the ferry companies was in the services from Waterloo to Cowes. The through services that now leave at 5 minutes past and 35 minutes past the hour just manage to miss the bus that gets to the ferry in time to catch the Red Jet to the island, so the service between Cowes and Waterloo that used on occasion to be a two-hour service is now a two-and-a-half-hour service.

The bus and ferry companies could at least adjust that, should they so want, but the Lymington service, with which you may be familiar, Mr. Chope, has changed, too. The London to Brockenhurst to Lymington service has been adjusted, so it now no longer matches the times of the Wightlink sailings to Yarmouth. It is much more difficult for the ferry company to adjust its sailing times, because two ferries cannot pass each other in the Lymington river. Each of those examples is an occasion on which the SRA must consult other transport undertakings before it sets in stone new timetabling arrangements.

My final moan about South West Trains and the Strategic Rail Authority concerns advertisements for services, especially those from Waterloo. It would help if Cowes, Shanklin and other island destinations were advertised at Waterloo as they would be if they were railway stations on the mainland. The fact that there is a break in the service to take a ferry is no excuse not to advertise those destinations. If public transport is to be integrated, whether by Government or the private sector, it must be integrated fully. There must be effective advertising of all available services.

While I am on the subject of trains, I ask the Minister to look at the duration of the Island Line franchise and at Network Rail's long-term plans for the permanent way of the island's rail service.

I have two fears. First, the Minister may be aware that we have a unique vertically integrated railway franchise. That means that Stagecoach, which owns Island Line, is   responsible for maintaining the permanent way— the    crossings, embankments and bridges—and for purchasing, or hiring, and maintaining the rolling stock.
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If there is a short franchise, the money provided—notionally to support the permanent way—will be spent elsewhere in Stagecoach's extensive network.

Secondly, with a short franchise, there is not the same incentive that there might be with a longer franchise to invest in rolling stock. As a consequence, the Isle of Wight is still running London underground stock that dates back to the 1950s. It is quite effective, but it is not exactly attractive. We could do better for the island.

The Minister will be interested to hear about a ragbag of odds and ends that I want to draw to her attention. As well as ferry services, it is important that we develop air services to the island. They would not be used by an overwhelming proportion of the population, but they would encourage business and investment to the island. Air services would also encourage some higher-spending holidaymakers to visit the island.

We are pressing the South East of England Development Agency, through the Isle of Wight economic partnership, to examine the possibility of a helicopter link to Cowes, perhaps from Southampton airport. We are also pressing for the navigation system at Bembridge airport to be upgraded in order to make blind landing possible there. It is a wonderful airport with an excellent runway, but, at present, it is not possible to land a plane in the dark or when there is low cloud.

Just before the most recent council elections, the ruling group on the council proposed the introduction of a landing charge. Islanders viewed that as a covert form of congestion charge. Not surprisingly, they threw out the ruling group and elected the Conservatives instead.

I should like the Minister to give some assurance that if Portsmouth or Southampton city councils were to consider a congestion charge the cost would not be borne by Isle of Wight motorists. As I have said, the cost of crossing the Solent is already significant, and we do not want any artificial boost to that through a congestion charge.

Finally, as the Minister will know, two thirds of the island is made up of areas of outstanding natural beauty. Many areas that are not designated as AONBs are very attractive and worth visiting. I congratulate the Government on an excellent booklet on street design, reduction of road signs in rural areas and on enhancing the environment that English Heritage and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have recently published. The environment of the Isle of Wight is precious to us all. I congratulate the Minister and her Government on that booklet and should welcome her if she would like to come to the island in the near future.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Ms Karen Buck) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this debate and on his energy in making representations to me a couple of weeks ago. He and his council colleagues have made many valuable points about transport on the Isle of Wight. We can all agree about the special character of the Isle of Wight and some of the particular challenges faced by rural and rural island communities in transport and in accessing services.
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I hope that I will be able to respond to a number of his points. If I cannot cover them all, I shall be happy to speak to him later. He talked about bus transport today, as he did when we met earlier. The Government are heavily committed to supporting bus use. We are providing more than £360 million a year through the bus service operators grant and through rural subsidy grant, which is now £53 million a year and helps to support around 2,200 rural bus services. We also invest in particular projects, such as bus challenge schemes and kick start.

Isle of Wight services are benefiting from more than £250,000 in rural bus services grant in this financial year and have been awarded more than £1.6 million since 1998 to develop their rural bus services. That supports 15 services in the authority's area. The Isle of Wight was successful with a 2002 rural bus challenge bid, the "East Wight villager", for which it was awarded more than £400,000. The "East Wight villager" is essentially a demand responsive service, linking the small villages with the principal towns. The award paid for the purchase of the vehicles and provided support to maintain the service for three years.

The hon. Gentleman referred to concessionary travel. As he knows, the Government are committed to helping older and disabled people to access public transport. We introduced the first statutory minimum entitlement in 2001, which guaranteed half-fare travel on local buses. We will provide an extra £350 million in the next financial year to allow older and disabled people to travel free on local off-peak bus services. As he is aware, we have made it very clear that this is a baseline of service on which local authorities are encouraged to build. That may be in partnership with other local authorities, which is not so easy when one is separated by a body of water, or by developing additional services on top of the concessionary fare that is essentially Government funded.

It is pleasing to hear that the council is looking at innovative ways of approaching flat fares or other concessionary fare approaches to help meet the particular local needs of the community. The Government are investing the money to provide a service but we recognise that central Government cannot and should not attempt to develop a very responsive service to every local area's particular needs. We want local government to take a lead in doing that.

One of the appropriate ways for local authorities to rise to that challenge is in the field of community transport, which is particularly relevant to rural communities. Provision and funding of transport to hospital and medical facilities, for example, can be provided by a number of different organisations, such as the hospital trust, local, voluntary and community groups, and bus and taxi companies. Community services operated by the voluntary sector have a valuable role in supplementing public transport provision. Local authorities have the flexibility to support these services from their local budgets should they choose to do so. A local authority can use its allocation of rural bus subsidy grant to help fund such services, and many community transport operators are also eligible to claim bus service operators grant from the Department.
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The hon. Gentleman has made several representations on making travel concessions on ferry crossings a statutory entitlement; that was the clear theme of his speech today and at our meeting on 30   November. As he vigorously explained, it will be necessary for islanders to travel to the mainland to access hospital health services or services such as education. However, I assure him that travel concession authorities can already provide enhancements to the statutory minimum requirement, and it would be within the local authority's power to give concessions on ferries, subject to financial priorities. The current basis of concessionary travel is the Government framework for a minimum entitlement, which leaves local discretion to add extras, such as bus travel before 9.30 am, community transport schemes and concessionary travel on services outside the local authority boundary.

The context is the financial settlement for local authorities, which was announced early last week. It was the first two-year settlement for local authorities' Government grant. Overall, £62 billion will be provided in 2006–07 and £65 billion in 2007–08. For the Isle of Wight, that means an extra £6 million, or 5.5 per cent., in funding in 2006–07. Taking formula grant and dedicated schools grant together, that will increase to £7 million, a 6.1 per cent. increase.

Mr. Turner : Can the Minister give a figure for reimbursing the cost of introducing the free fare scheme for pensioners?

Ms Buck : I am afraid that I do not have the figure with   me, but the grant is not ring-fenced, as the hon.   Gentleman is probably aware. The distribution is done under a formula and in consultation with local government. The money is then put into the general environmental and protective cultural services block of the revenue support grant for local authorities to draw on.

On roads, the hon. Gentleman made a strong case for supporting the roads private finance initiative. It may be helpful if I explain the bidding process for PFI. We aim to invite expressions of interest for further highway maintenance PFI pathfinder projects from local transport authorities early next year, although the exact details have yet to be finalised. Under the process for accepting bids, the Department will invite expressions of interest from local authorities and ask the strongest bidders to produce an outline business case. If the Department approves an authority's outline business case, it will be put forward to be approved by the project review group. The group is an interdepartmental body chaired by Her Majesty's Treasury and has to approve all PFI schemes that require central Government support.

On air services, the White Paper on the future of air transport supported the growth of regional airports and recognised in particular the role that air services can play in providing rapid access from the regions to other parts of the country. The network of domestic air services in the UK has expanded significantly in recent years, and several airlines specialise in serving thinner routes to small regional airports. We are looking to those carriers, working with airport operators, to introduce proposals for new commercial services and to open up parts of the country that do not possess air
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links. I am aware that there is a history of air links to the Isle of Wight, although no sustained air services have operated for a great many years. The potential for new services to the island would of course be restricted by the limited capabilities of the two licensed aerodromes, which could support only smaller types of commercial aircraft.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Island Line. As he knows, it is a stand-alone train operating company franchise operated by Stagecoach, and it is due to end in February 2007. The first stage of the procurement process for the letting of the new South Western passenger rail franchise has started. The new franchise will encompass the existing Island Line franchise. There has been no significant investment in the line for a considerable time, but it is being designated as a community rail line as part of the Department's community rail development strategy, which is examining the cost-effectiveness of infrastructure enhancements to enable a more regular service pattern to operate while reducing ongoing costs.

Progress has been made in establishing a community rail partnership for the island that involves the railway, the council, Wightlink and other user groups. Its main purpose will be to raise the profile of the line and to promote its local use and use by mainline visitors.

The hon. Gentleman made important and valuable points about information, advertising and rail punctuality. I promise him that I will ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who is responsible for rail services, is given a note of what he said, and I will ask whether he can add anything to my comments today.

We recognise that there are many challenges ahead, and that rural communities, particularly on islands, face very specific challenges. We believe, however, that there is a healthy future for rural transport of the island, given the Government's investment in local government settlements, in local transport plans and in the bus service, and given the partnership achieved by the Isle of Wight authority. I assure the hon. Gentleman that officials in my Department want to continue to work with the local authority to ensure that we make the best possible use of the opportunities available to us.

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