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We should bear in mind the fact that the population in the county council area as a whole is approaching 400,000, whereas the population of Poole is about 140,000. We are looking at bus subsidies going straight to the bus operators. In 2003-04, the spend by Dorset county council on subsidised bus services was around £900,000; in 2004-05, it was only £838,000; in 2005-06, it was over £1 million; and in 2006-07, it was over £1 million. When I asked how much was spent in the eastern part of the county, which is more densely populated for the most part, the figure for 2005-06 was only £116,000. The figures that I have been given show that that is a change of 315 per cent. on the previous year. That shows that the county council has had a
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different approach to supporting bus services, using its rural grant in possibly innovative ways, but now we are facing this crisis, there is a problem with the level of funding.

Are my councils allocating enough? Is it so difficult to work in partnership when one company is dominant? People are concerned that perhaps Corfe Mullen is being used almost as a ransom by the bus company. The figures from the bus company this morning make it clear that it was making massive losses on the services that were provided, but it is unsustainable for the community to be left in this position.

The bus company is responding a little—perhaps it could respond more—by saying that perhaps it got that bit wrong. It is important that I keep on making representations to the bus companies. There are other issues across my constituency. For example, tokens are given to those elderly people who are too disabled to use the bus in the Dorset county council area but not in the Poole area. That is causing some unrest. If there are buses, elderly people can use their bus passes earlier in the day in the Dorset county council area than they can in the Poole area.

The main point that I want to raise with the Minister is: are the councils allocating enough of their resources? My councils would say that they cannot allocate any more because the Government do not give them sufficient funds. The county council in particular is reviewing all its expenditure and proposing many cuts, because its expenditure commitments are rising at a rate of 7 per cent., but its projected income is rising at only 5 per cent. The county council will not find it easy, therefore, to allocate more resources to address that serious problem. What advice can the Minister give to the councils and what help can the Government give them, financially and in the provision of support for partnership working? I hope that the Minister will be able to help my constituents who are upset and outraged by the situation.

10.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss the important subject of bus transport in her constituency. I agree that buses are a crucial element in meeting the nation’s transport needs. With public sector support for bus services now totalling more than £2 billion a year, they clearly have a very high ranking in our transport priorities, for many of the reasons that the hon. Lady mentioned.

Over the past few years, with the industry and local authorities working together, we have made some good progress in many respects, with record levels of investment by industry and Government, and new initiatives and partnerships that have increased bus use in many areas. The Government’s massive increase in our provision for concessionary fares for older and disabled people has also been a part of that.

Of course, there is room for further improvement. What has been happening in the hon. Lady’s constituency is an example of the more mixed picture
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nationally. In parts of the constituency, in particular Poole, we have seen investment by the bus operator, leading to significant increases in bus use. But the other side of the picture is the difficulty in sustaining local services and ensuring access for all, especially in the more rural areas of the constituency. Operators and local authorities always have faced, and always will face, decisions on how best to allocate resources.

As the hon. Lady said, in parts of the area there has been a good local bus network supported by the Go- Ahead Group. It has invested £11 million in new buses and launched the award winning More bus network. Bus patronage rose on those routes by 30 per cent. across Poole last year, as the hon. Lady acknowledged, and the local authorities have played their part by providing new bus stop infrastructure to raise the general standard of services.

Bus patronage growth in rural Dorset has outperformed the south-west regional average, and that of England. We welcome those positive trends. However, I recognise that there have been difficulties, including the problems elderly people have in accessing some bus services. I also understand that following a review of local services some destinations have had services withdrawn. Indeed, I am aware that both Dorset county council and the borough of Poole have had many letters from constituents concerned about recent changes.

As is always the case, difficult challenges have to be faced in maintaining rural public transport services in the face of competing priorities for funding. I understand that Poole council has taken prompt steps to restore services to a number of destinations that no longer had a service, and that it is also carrying out a thorough review of its bus subsidy provision. The begiven priority to give to supporting bus services is of course a local decision, and I know that the council has had some interesting debates about the reductions in funding for supported services in the borough.

I want to make direct reference both to the considerable Government funding for buses in the hon. Lady’s constituency and to the role of local authorities. For our part, we have for some time recognised the particular needs for bus support in rural areas, which benefits from the main Government sources of funding for buses—the bus service operators grant—and the Government’s revenue support grant to local authorities. Both represent major investment.

The bus service operators grant provides a rebate of about 80 per cent. of the duty paid by bus operators on the fuel they use; in the case of environmentally friendly fuels, the rebate is 100 per cent. That contributes to the financial viability of many rural services. However, conventional bus services are not always the most cost-effective way of meeting rural public transport needs. Community transport makes a significant contribution to meeting those needs.

As well as the benefits of that general support, we have long recognised the particular needs of rural communities by providing separate specific funding for rural bus services. Since 1998, they have benefited from the rural bus subsidy grant. In its first year, the grant provided £32 million to local authorities for new bus services in rural areas. Since then, the grant level has been increasing and it is now more than £54 million across England, providing for 2,000 rural services and
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more than 30 million passenger journeys a year. I am sure that the hon. Lady will acknowledge that that is a considerable support to our rural communities. Funds are allocated on the basis of the number of people living in rural areas within each authority.

Since 1998, Dorset has received just under £7 million of the grant for rural bus services and Poole council has received about £89,000. Dorset receives almost £1 million a year, which provides more than 30 services in the county. The grant can be used not only for conventional buses but for a wider variety of flexible or demand-responsive services. The local authority is of course best placed to decide how to use those funds and which services to support. In addition to that grant, all authorities can use their own resources to support bus services, and the bulk of local authority support for buses comes from the Government’s revenue support grant.

I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the rural bus challenge and Kickstart funding that we have provided to support innovative schemes in rural areas. Between 1998 and 2003, challenge funding provided £110 million for 301 schemes, and those financial resources enabled many local authorities to try out more innovative schemes to address rural transport needs.

In Dorset, the rural bus challenge funded the Blackmore Vale accessible community transport scheme, which was awarded nearly £500,000. The award-winning Jurassic coast links service, developed in partnership with Devon county council, also benefited, with £665,000 of rural bus challenge funding.

Since 2003, we have used a new approach called Kickstart, which provides pump-priming funding for services that have the potential to become self-sustaining after three years. I am sure that the hon. Lady and her constituents would agree that it is disappointing that Dorset was not able to submit more successful bids during the six years that the rural bus challenge funding was available, and similarly that its bids for Kickstart funding have not been successful.

Annette Brooke: Will the Minister give way?

Gillian Merron: Yes, although there is only a short time left for the debate.

Annette Brooke: Can the Minister give some advice about the future for the community of Corfe Mullen, where 10,000 residents face having no bus services whatever? The county council says that it has no extra money to save the situation. What can be done?

Gillian Merron: I refer the hon. Lady to what I have already said. The local authority failed to submit successful bids for funds that were available to it, and are available up and down the country. It is important that she and her constituents should be aware of the extra Government funding that could have been available. The local authority could have successfully applied for that funding, but did not. I refer her to all the points that I have made about the level of financing that is available.

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I also refer the hon. Lady to concessionary fares. They will have a direct impact on the experience of many bus users. We are going to see an increase in bus patronage. It is worth noting that some 22,000 free bus passes have been issued to the over-60s and disabled people in Poole alone. If her constituency is anything like mine, I imagine that they will be very well received.

Having outlined the Government support that has been, and is, available, I urge the hon. Lady, who is hearing directly of problems with access to public
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transport in her constituency, to bring those issues to the attention of her local authority. Many authorities are already working hard to try to address such issues as part of their local transport plan, for which they are funded well. It is important that local authorities work closely with local bus operators to get things right. I hope that the hon. Lady will urge her local authority to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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