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Main Question put and agreed to.


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Mr. Speaker: I propose to put together the Questions on the five motions.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Climate Change Levy

Northern Ireland

Data Protection

Rehabilitation of Offenders

Road Traffic

Question agreed to.


Willalla House

10.14 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Willalla house is a group of sheltered homes for elderly people, and it is a very welcoming and lively community on Canvey island. Unfortunately, it has been without a permanent warden for far too long, and there is a feeling that the borough council is dragging its feet by not providing a warden, as it should do. The excellent residents of Willalla house and the other residential homes on Canvey island therefore decided to send a petition to Parliament, and Mr. Lake did so on their behalf.

I know that the House will listen very carefully to what these good people say. They deserve to get a warden without further delay, and I congratulate the wardens in place in Castle Point for their care of elderly residents.

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The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Thundersley Green Belt

10.15 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The people of Thundersley who live around a site for a proposed assault course near Rivenhall in Thundersley are rightly deeply concerned about the implications of that proposal for their quality of life and their green-belt land. Mr. Stokes and the residents of Rivenhall are worthy people seeking to defend their community and green belt from inappropriate development and exploitation, and they do a great community service in bringing this matter before the House.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Bus Services (Dorset)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Michael Foster.]

10.16 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I am going to concentrate during this debate on bus services in my constituency, although the problems do cover a wider area, as reflected in the vast number of letters in our local paper, the Daily Echo, and Saturday’s front-page headline: “Bus Rage!”

My constituency is a mix of urban and rural areas and is served by a number of councils. For the purposes of this debate, the relevant councils are Poole unitary and Dorset county council. The main bus company is Wilts & Dorset, which, has been owned by the Go-Ahead Group since 2003. The current outrage among my constituents occurred after the interruption of a new bus timetable on 4 June. I have in fact received few representations from the most rural parts of my constituency, simply, I believe, because the services for places such as Bere Regis were already so infrequent that it was impossible to cut them any further.

The recent problems have occurred in the less rural parts of the eastern end of the county council area, and in the adjoining north Poole part of my constituency: Corfe Mullen and Upton, in the county council area; and Merley, Broadstone, Creekmoor and Alderney, in north Poole. Where we used to have a poor bus service for many people, we now have a dire or non-existent one. As elderly people are saying to me time and again, “What is the point of a free bus pass if there are no buses that we can use?” Of course, it is the most vulnerable who have been severely affected: elderly people who do not have a car; people who travel to work who cannot drive, perhaps because of visual impairment; the young; and those who cannot afford a car. People who cannot now travel to work are saying, “Shall I move, change my job or perhaps not work at all?”

My constituency is already an area of very high car ownership, particularly because of the existing difficulties associated with travelling by public transport, but I now know of some families who have purchased a second car because of the current situation. It makes a mockery of the Government’s national policy to encourage more people to use public transport and to reduce car travel. It is of great significance to young people—how can they have things to do and places to go if there is no transport to get them there?

Wilts & Dorset bus company’s new owners introduced their first route revision in 2004, another in 2005, and in June this year, a complete recasting of the network. The service revisions have been designed to improve the efficiency of the company by reducing costs, as the bus company tells me, or possibly, I suppose, by increasing profits. From Poole’s perspective, the company’s strategy has been the simplification of the network, which is intended to make services more direct and reliable to compete with a private car. Bus services have been diverted off side roads that penetrate estates to run down prime transport corridors at an increased frequency. The use of modern, bright and air-conditioned vehicles aims to
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offer comfortable, accessible and safer travel, in an attempt to attract the motorist.

In terms of overall passenger growth, the company increased its patronage in the borough of Poole by more than 30 per cent. between 2004 and 2006. Unfortunately, the strategy of route simplification is fundamentally at odds with Poole’s accessibility goals, as many elderly or disabled passengers cannot access the new direct services. They simply cannot walk to the main road bus stop or return with shopping bags. The most recent route revision in June saw approximately 10 per cent. of Poole’s 850 bus stops left potentially without any form of bus service. That included what would once have been considered good bus-operating territory—large housing estates and tracts of what I would call “bungalow land”. The county council concurs that the overarching feature is the withdrawal of services from parts of routes not considered to be part of the core network, and that the focus is now on fewer high-frequency routes on main roads, with less emphasis on penetrating residential and rural areas. I believe that that has happened in other parts of the country, but our area started from such a low base, with poor provision.

One could easily think that the route changes had been triggered by the free bus pass for elderly citizens—the cuts came about more or less at the same time—as the areas with the biggest cuts are typically where senior citizens might live. I have questioned the bus company at great length about whether it is satisfied with the negotiations over free bus pass travel. I have been assured that it is satisfied at the moment with the amount of money that councils are paying it, so we must assume that it is a sheer coincidence.

I appreciate that the Minister does not want to sit through a long catalogue of details about particular bus services affecting communities of which she has probably never heard. However, I want to describe the situation in just one community that, I believe, is the worst hit.

Corfe Mullen is right on the edge of the Poole conurbation and is served by Dorset county council. It has a population of 10,000 people and had an estimated 80,000 bus trips per year. It had five buses per hour, allowing residents to travel to Poole, Bournemouth and Wimborne to access a wide range of services. With very little notice, Wilts & Dorset bus company announced that it was ceasing all services from 4 June. As one might imagine, the local community was devastated by that news, and I have received hundreds of representations just from that community. As a temporary measure, the county council has managed to transfer £27,000 from subsidising evening and weekend services to subsidise a skeleton service until September. That means that there are now only two buses per hour, plus some limited peak-time direct buses to Bournemouth, with the previous service to Wimborne not running at all.

Corfe Mullen has limited facilities, so the loss of the route to Wimborne, a nearby market town where the administrative offices of East Dorset district council are sited, has created great difficulties. Access to Poole main hospital is difficult, as is access to the local college. It is basically impossible to travel by bus to various industrial estates.

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The current situation is difficult, as has been illustrated by residents. One writes

Another resident writes:

Another writes:

Travelling to the college is a complex process. A change of buses is necessary. There are a number of courses for young people with special needs at the college. Many could cope with one bus, but coping with more than one is difficult.

Poole hospital workers and patients have been affected. There are whole areas of housing where people purchased their properties because they were served by a bus route. Now a long walk is needed for people to gain access even to limited services. The evening bus services are very limited, and people feel that they are prisoners in their own homes.

That is the situation now. What will happen in September, when the current arrangement ends? Wilts & Dorset could refuse to continue to operate the current skeleton service, and give notice of its intention to stop. At that point, what could Dorset county council do? It could consider tendering services in Corfe Mullen for the first time, but it tells me that its bus subsidy budget was overspent last year. That means that funding is not currently in the base budget, and cuts in other areas would be required if the base budget could not be increased. The council has not generally gone along with subsidising routes other than Sunday and weekend services, and I believe that it is concerned about achieving value for money, given the dominance and power of Wilts & Dorset. It has suggested to me that the current review of all the services might be able to identify possible savings, and that there might be consultations with Poole borough council; but I fear that the problem will simply be pushed from one council to another, and that no overall solution will be found.

Another option suggested by Dorset county council is that it could rework the whole scheme, and—using subsidy initially, and perhaps purchasing a vehicle—could work with another company and eventually convert the service into something commercially viable. Potentially 80,0000 passenger journeys could be regained, but the process would take time and involve up-front costs.

Poole has given lifelines to several communities by subsidising additional routes with another much smaller company. The borough’s limited budget for
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subsidising bus services has also traditionally been targeted at providing evening and Sunday services. However, since the radical June 2006 network revision, it has been seen to be necessary for officers to let numerous contracts for additional services to cover gaps in the commercial network during the day.

One of those services has been a great success, wending its way through residential areas, stopping off at Poole hospital and calling at Tesco. It is performing above expectations, and is already carrying more than 100 passengers a day, although at present it runs only three times a day. I have had the most wonderful letters from elderly people who thought that they had no bus service, and then discovered the small bus service subsidised by Poole council. They say that the driver is wonderful and so kind, and that it is saving their lives. Their one request is for more than three buses per day. Currently they reach a place, and then have to return within 40 minutes. That looks as though it will be possible. I am not sure that the county council is prepared to take such an approach.

Why are we in this mess? Obviously, there is the general strategy, but there is also the fact that, without a doubt, the bus company has faced the rising costs of drivers’ wages, fuel in particular and insurance, which are undermining profit margins. That is its argument for taking that action. At a Local Government Association meeting in December, it was flagged up to councils that contract prices would increase significantly and that budget provision would have to be made. Increases in the price of the tenders of between 10 and 20 per cent. were expected, I believe, so how much do my local councils spend on subsidising bus services? These are interesting figures. I will look just at the figures on subsidising buses, not taking on board the provision of bus shelters, advertising and school transport.

In 2003-04 the borough of Poole spent about £564,000; in 2004-05, its expenditure approached £600,000; and in 2005-06, it was £653,000. The improvement in resources falls back in 2006-07, just when it appears that more money is needed, to just over £611,000. Obviously, therefore, there is an issue here. What sort of figures does the Minister think will be necessary to support bus services, given that the commercial bus companies, which since the Transport Act 1985 do not have to provide any social routes, are moving forward in terms of hoping to increase their passengers, but backwards in terms of vulnerable residents?

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