HC Deb 03 April 1958 vol 585 cc1442-66

2.47 p.m.

Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)

I want to divert the attention of the House and of my hon. Friend from what is going on at the Elephant and Castle roads, to what is happening with some old Kent roads, and a great many other roads as well. I want to call attention to the progressive deterioration of our rural transport system, which is causing increasing alarm. I am sorry to bring my hon. Friend to the Box for the third time on a Maundy Thursday, but he will accept that this is a situation which requires urgent discussion, and it is one about which his right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport shares our anxiety.

The evidence is beyond dispute and I know that my hon. Friend will not seek to dispute it. Not only in my part of South-East England, but all over the country, almost without exception, there is now a relentless cut of rural bus services. A series of cuts have been occurring in remoter parts for a long time. The process is now accelerating. I shall give two local examples of how we in East Kent are affected. I shall quote what has been done by the two major bus companies in that area.

The East Kent Road Car Company Limited has reduced its country mileage from 8½ million miles in 1953, to 8 million in 1958, a reduction of 6.6 per cent., and the likely cuts in 1959 will be a further ½ million miles—all those in round figures. The Maidstone and District Motor Services Limited states that the estimated cut in rural mileage in 1958, compared with 1957, is 1,143,000, or 6.8 per cent., while the estimated further cut in 1959 is 2½ million miles, or 21.7 per cent. of the 1957 figure. That Company goes on to say: The cuts made so far have been made either in frequency or by withdrawal on certain days of the week, but it is now no longer possible to avoid the complete withdrawal from certain villages and areas, and it is regretted that the first of those to suffer in our proposed programmes are … and it goes on to name four villages.

One of those villages, Westwell, is in my constituency and I received a petition signed, I suppose, by the majority of the inhabitants. This comment could be made by villages all over rural England: Ours is an agricultural village and if the bus service is discontinued, it will completely disrupt the life of the village and make it impossible for families with children and old people to go out at all. In support of that statement, I would point out that the Clerk of the West Ashford Rural District Council wrote a letter to the Chancellor, and sent me a copy, the relevant extract of which reads as follows: The Maidstone and District Bus Company have informed me that this is only the beginning, and that unless there is a reversal of the present trend, further bus services will also have to be withdrawn. It is quite possible that in a short time eight villages out of twelve in my Council's area will have no means of bus transport. That is from a home county, and not one of the remoter districts in the Midlands, the north or the west.

Many parts of rural England are now facing an isolation which they have not previously experienced since the advent of the internal combustion engine. If it were not tragic it would be a comic footnote to modern progress. The time is approaching when thousands of villages will have no services at all. I know that my hon. Friend accepts the fact that this is not simply a grievous social inconvenience; it is affecting the supply of agricultural labour and the mobility of all forms of labour, creating real difficulties for the housewives and acute distress to the old, infirm and sick, and is tending to disrupt the whole balance of urban and rural England, to maintain which Governments have spent hundreds of millions of pounds since the war.

In order that hon. Members should fully appreciate the economics of the matter, it is necessary that I should say a word about the new shape of our rural economy. Our villages are no longer self-contained units. Many villagers travel to and from the nearest town, where they work in factories and workshops. That is the pattern of the second cycle in the Industrial Revolution; it is a happier footnote to Goldsmith. I shall not labour this outline unduly because it is known and accepted, and it may be that other hon. Members can testify to it from their own experience.

The causes too are generally agreed. Naturally, the bus companies put the fuel tax at the top of the list, and it is incon- testably a major factor. I am not asking my hon. Friend to comment about it today, because I know that he cannot. We all appreciate its relationship to the forthcoming Budget. But even when it is set in perspective with the other factors the fuel tax remains a very substantial issue, and cannot be brushed aside even ten days before the Chancellor's appearance to present his Budget.

I know that my hon. Friend worked very closely with the present Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was in the Ministry of Agriculture, and he will be aware that his right hon. Friend holds the conviction—and he is not alone in this—that in order to preserve the prosperity of the countryside and its social balance it is our duty to provide houses, education, electricity, water, drainage and other amenities. Towards that end we have done a very great deal since the war. Those amenities are all factors which weigh in the minds of women. They are taken into account by the prospective countryman's bride, who is biologically indispensable to the future of the countryside, and they thus bear upon the future population of the countryside, and its health and life.

It is tragic that the work which is being done to give the countryside a share of modern amenities should now be threatened by a collapse of the transport system, and I would ask my hon. Friend just to whisper in the Chancellor's ear to this effect during the Recess.

The fuel tax amounts to 3d. a mile, which is about 10 per cent. or even 15 per cent. of operating costs. It turns an uneconomic service into a heavily losing one, a service which is just balancing into a losing one, and takes the profit out of services which ought to be more than balancing their losses. In a sentence, it reduces the number of swings which all transport operators have to balance against their roundabouts, it being well known that all operators run a number of losing services to help the remoter areas, and must redress the balance by means of their more profitable services.

Important though it is, the fuel tax is not the only—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is not entitled to talk about the fuel tax on the Adjournment. That is a matter for legislation, and the Finance Bill.

Mr. Deedes

I accept your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. I am now moving on to other factors. The removal of the fuel tax would not solve the problem. A new factor is the immense increase in private transport, in the form of cars, cycles and scooters, which have made independent hundreds and thousands of former bus passengers—and not only them, but a great many of their friends, co-workers and others, whom they are always glad to help with lifts to and from work. That process will inevitably continue. While it helps the problem for many, in a most agreeable way, it enormously increases the problem for a great many others.

My right hon. Friend the Minister thinks that television is a factor in this process, and it probably is. It has enormously reduced evening traffic, and so the profitability of evening services. People now tend to stay at home instead of going out for their entertainment. Further, we have the familiar inflationary story of rising costs, higher wages and fares, and fewer passengers. For some time now the bus companies have been meeting passenger resistance. Most of them are finding that a rise in fares is a mere palliative, because the loss of revenue through falling passenger traffic is greater than the increased revenue of higher fares.

The Minister and I know that there is no single solution; that no one stroke will solve the problem; but I should like to refer to one or two strokes which can be applied with a little more vigour. First, there should be a frank admission of the seriousness of the problem, and no glossing over it. It should be made clear that the countryside is threatened with a situation which would be economically disastrous for the country.

Secondly, it should be made clear that the solution does not lie wholly within the reach of the Minister or any member of the Government. Accepting all that is said about fuel tax, difficulties beyond their control, and so on, the fact remains that some transport undertakings are not facing their difficulties imaginatively. They should be woken up, and given some fresh ideas. They should experiment and drop some of their old-fashioned inhibitions. There must be a readiness among the larger undertakings to try what their boards of directors have been saying for years and years will not work. The substance of that observation is that some small operators have proved that clever administration can help in spite of all the difficulties which are beyond their control.

Thirdly, the British Transport Commission must take a bigger share of responsibility. It is not good enough for it to discontinue thousands of miles of branch lines and then oppose any step which would give its road rivals a lesser handicap. I do not want my hon. Friend to give an immediate reply. But I would like him to consider whether there could be a revival of an agreement which previously existed, to the effect that where a local bus company was willing to fill the gap created by the closing of a branch line the Commission expressed a willingness to pay any deficit—based upon audited accounts—which arose from that service, so that the bus service exactly balanced as to profit and loss. The bus company thereby did not lose, and the Commission paid considerably less than the branch line would have cost it. There must there, I think, be some germ of an idea which would help what is really an unacceptable position. If branch lines are cut, it means that bus services will be subsequently withdrawn.

Fourthly, it is said that a small vehicle plays a major part in this matter. I find that a technical problem on which I am not fitted to comment. It is true that in some cases the small bus could make a contribution to certain areas. There are operators who find that at peak hours they require all the machinery on which they can lay their hands and that for the rest of the day the larger buses run at a loss.

I think it might be possible for the Minister to offer a little more guidance on the type, size and methods of running smaller buses based on the experience of others. Perhaps we might hear a little more on those lines.

Fifthly, I think that the Minister ought to try to stir the interest of the Ministry of Education. There is a great deal of rural transport at peak hours for the purpose of moving school children away from their villages to the grammar and secondary modern schools elsewhere. This is a new and developing situation. This traffic should be reviewed. Is the financial basis sound? Is there a tendency for education to get an invisible subsidy through this service?

Sixthly, are the Traffic Commissioners and licensing authorities really facing the situation realistically? Like some operators, I think that their arteries tend to harden. I know the argument about balancing the big operator with the small operator. The big operator has to balance the rough with the smooth, and the small operator cannot be allowed to collar too much of the smooth.

I know that the Minister is countenancing a more flexible attitude regarding the standard of fitness required of some vehicles. I think we should consider whether in the light of this very urgent situation there are some other Regulations which should be reviewed.

I am sorry, in a way, that this debate should have taken place just when there is a fresh shadow being thrown over rural transport problems by events outside. I do not think that anyone should comment on that fact, except in a general sense. It is very natural that, exasperated by declining services, rural passengers should adopt a rather hostile attitude towards their local transport companies. That is quite understandable. In some of the circumstances, I think that their moderation is commendable; but they really will have to realise that they are not rival parties in the matter.

The passengers and the bus companies will sink or swim together, and I would say that something of that sort goes for the two parties concerned in the road transport industry. They are occupying not a sinking ship, but a ship which is at the moment by no means making water very well. There is a remorseless trend not only for fewer passengers to be carried, but for fewer buses to be needed and for fewer services. In the long run, that must mean fewer drivers and conductors.

It is manifest that, all other considerations apart, in the long run the road transport industry is going to contract. The development of private transport is going to tip the scales, whatever the Chancellor does. The passengers, the operators, the bus men and, indeed, the Government, ought to perceive realistically what we are up against. They ought to realise that it is not merely a plaint from a few disgruntled people who have lost their local bus service, but the beginning of a major social situation. Having considered the matter realistically, they should weigh it up and base their actions accordingly. I hope that this small debate may have contributed something to their line of thought.

3.5 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

I observe, Mr. Speaker, that no one on these benches is trying to catch your eye at the moment. Therefore, it may be suitable for me to say a few words in encouragement of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), because I happen to represent the very scattered constituency of Sowerby in the West Riding of Yorkshire where, incidentally, there is a good deal of uphill work and also very uncertain climatic conditions, both of which add considerably to the difficulties and expense of passenger transport.

This matter is certainly a problem. There can be no doubt about it. All over the country changes are taking place in local bus facilities, which add up for the community as a whole to quite a considerable withdrawal of transport services that it has enjoyed up till now.

When I heard the hon. Member for Ashford refer to the fuel tax, my eagerness to take part in the debate grew, but, after hearing your discouraging intervention, Mr. Speaker, I realised that I must not follow the hon. Gentleman in that matter. But perhaps I can at least endorse the hon. Gentleman's request to the Parliamentary Secretary to whisper in the Chancellor's ear, should he get the opportunity, during the Easter Recess. I will not tell him what to say. He may have to whisper loudly, because I understand that his right hon. Friend is going for a motor tour this Easter. He is going round and about as an ordinary motorist to look and see.

I do not wish the right hon. Gentleman any harm. Indeed, my affection for him grew when I was with him on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association's tour of India and Pakistan, and when his anxieties were far fewer than they are today. But if the right hon. Gentleman's car breaks down, then I hope that he will have to try to catch a country bus. He will then realise that they are not as frequent as perhaps he thinks, and that may lead him to certain conclusions a week next Tuesday.

As the hon. Member for Ashford said, social changes of profound importance to our way of life are taking place in all sorts of directions at the present time. This is not the only one. I think that the time is probably coming when it will be necessary for the Government to carry out a survey to ascertain what is happening throughout the country as a whole and to see what remedies can be found. Undoubtedly, the increased use of the private car and the advent of television, which is keeping many people at home, are both having their effect on the use of passenger transport. There is, of course, a limit to the extent to which the profitable routes can subsidise the uneconomic ones, and I believe this to be largely a clue to the present difficulties.

That brings me to another point which was mentioned in the course of evidence given to the tribunal recently in connection with pay claims in the transport industry. It is the curious attitude of the public towards the cost of transport. There seems to be a strong resistance to even small increases of passenger fares of all kinds, though one feels that the public will swallow with much less feeling price increases in other less essential directions.

Why is that, I wonder. It is a psychological problem of some kind, I think. Whether it is that, on the whole, public transport takes people to work and that one is not as excited as all that about being taken to work, I do not know. Many of the country routes are for pleasure, too. Indeed, many of the complaints made about the withdrawal of the facilities concern the denial of the pleasure trip, because such withdrawals are mostly at non-peak times, at weekends, or of late buses and facilities of that kind, which are largely part of the leisure and excursion time of those who go by bus.

Undoubtedly, something will happen to many of our rural areas if these bus services are cut still further. I saw a headline in one of my own local papers recently, "A Dying Village." It is true that that was not wholly attributable to the withdrawal of bus services, but unless there is transport from the remote areas to the nearest centres of entertainment and cultural activity, schools and all the rest, there will be a growing reluctance to live in the countryside, because the amenities of life today are an essential part of a full and satisfactory life in the country areas.

Without taking any more of the time of the House, I wish to say that I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Ashford with great interest, and that, although it is rather fortuitous that I happened to be here at the time, as I am doing the "Week in Westminster" broadcast on Saturday, I am, at all events, aptly rewarded for my vigil this afternoon.

3.11 p.m.

Mr. C. R. Howard (St. Ives)

I should like to support my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) in the very able speech which he has made on this subject. I will not try to follow the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton); indeed, I would not dare to do so, in view of his great experience, in any of the matters at present out of order in this debate.

I should like, however, to endorse what he said about my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and particularly what he said about how long the Chancellor might have to wait for a bus if his car were to break down. I do not know where my right hon. Friend is going next week, but if he is going to the South-West, and particularly to the part which I have the honour to represent, he will learn that in the summer there are large numbers of buses, which are filled with tourists admiring the scenery, whereas in the winter there are very few buses, on which people from the villages are struggling to get in order to go to the towns.

As my hon. Friend quite rightly said, the situation has changed today, and it is now one in which many people either wish or have to go to the towns to supply their shopping needs for the week and so on. That being the case, I must pay this tribute to the transport undertaking in the south-western area. I wrote to the company last year asking for an additional bus service, and, to support what my hon. Friend has said, I would add that the company itself was surprised to find what a success that service was. It was found that the service was so much used that the company has decided to put it on again this year; at least, I believe that it is to do so.

Apart from that, there are one or two points which I wish to put to my hon. Friend which I hope he will consider. They have often been mentioned before, but I should like to mention them again. The first is the question of the single bus operation in a country area. As my hon. Friend will know, in France there are rural buses in all parts of the country. They are large buses operated by one man as driver who uses a device at his side whereby he can open and close the doors of the bus. He sees to it that the only door which opens is the one at his side, so that no one can get in or out of the bus without the driver checking that a ticket has been obtained. That system, of course, helps the wages side of the story.

I hope that my hon. Friend can also tell us something about the guidance given to the licensing authorities concerning applications from other bus companies. Admittedly, I know the difficulties of this problem, and about taking the rough with the smooth, about which my hon. Friend spoke, but there are many areas in which a small operator might use a smaller bus, which would not be suitable in busier areas, but which might be very suitable for country areas. I do not know; perhaps my hon. Friend can tell us about that.

My hon. Friend mentioned the question of disused branch railway lines. It may be that his idea is a very good one, but if it cannot be adopted, why cannot the Transport Commission do what, again, has been done in France for many years? I am referring to the inexpensive type of bus fitted with railway wheels so as to be capable of running on railway tracks. We have discussed this matter with the Transport Commission, but the answer always is that this is not an economic proposition. The Commission's idea of what is wanted in this case is far too elaborate.

The Commission wish to put in buses with plush seats, fitted with photographs of beauty spots, mirrors, and all the rest, but what we are concerned with is the kind of bus with tubular seats with rexine covers, a diesel engine at one end and one man to open and shut the doors for people getting in and out. This type of bus would be far cheaper in construction and would serve the purpose of these branch lines on which it is not economical to run an ordinary train with two or three coaches, an engine and all the rest—and probably empty.

I should now like to mention a point which my hon. Friend made about school buses, particularly as concerning my own part of the country. In the area round The Lizard, we have buses going round the villages collecting children to bring them to school and taking them back in the afternoon. Would it be possible to get in touch with the education authority to find out whether parents could not be allowed to travel on such buses as well? It is surely important to kill two birds with one stone, and it would not be such a great cost to the local authority, which might even be able to get a better contract. It would mean that the parents would be able to go with the children, and, in some cases, it would surely be a very good way of producing transport to take them to the towns and bring them back.

Whatever the answer may be, I agree with my hon. Friend this debate is most useful. As the hon. Gentleman opposite said, this is a very real social problem in the countryside. Whatever we may say about television and other things, the conditions of the people who live in the remote country areas are nothing like those of people who live even in a small country town. We are always hearing about the difficulty of recruiting agricultural labour and of keeping people in the remote areas. I am sure that this problem of the local buses is one of the most important and central parts of that problem, and I hope that this short debate will do something to help to put that situation right.

3.19 p.m.

Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)

Everyone who lives in rural Britain will be glad that the House, before it rises for the Easter Recess, has found time to turn the limelight on the very serious problem of rural transport. I know that all who live in the countryside will be extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) for having raised it.

This is a subject which is of vital importance for the survival of the countryside. I have myself raised this matter on the Floor of the House often during the past six years, and I will not detain the House now by going over old ground. It is not necessary to do so, because anyone with knowledge of this subject must realise the gravity of the situation. It just cannot be disputed.

When the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) suggested that the Government might perhaps undertake a survey of the problem, I felt that I should draw his attention to the fact that, where Northumberland is concerned, the Rural Community Council there, encouraged by the Ministry of Transport, recently undertook a survey and published a most interesting, but most gloomy, report on the subject. There really is no need to emphasise the gravity of the problem.

Furthermore, no one would deny that unless urgent action is taken, the situation will deteriorate still further, and that soon we shall be faced with a complete collapse of public transport facilities in the rural areas. The Minister must know the situation, for he has all the facts and figures before him, and they tell a very alarming story.

I know quite well from previous debates on this subject that both the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary are very sympathetic. They have done what they can by way of influencing the Traffic Commissioners and the licensing authorities to see that, wherever possible, the remunerative services carry the un-remunerative ones. They have arranged also for regulations to be altered so that smaller buses can be provided.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) drew attention to the position in France, where there are buses operated by one man. That is so in this country, too, in the rural areas, but the Minister must realise that these measures are mere palliatives. We have been tinkering with the problem so far and merely touching its fringe. Meanwhile, costs have been rising and receipts have been going down. More and more buses are not paying their way.

The bigger operators, of course, are able to offset their losses on un-remunerative routes by the profits made in the urban or suburban areas, but for the small man this state of affairs means death. More and more buses are being withdrawn in the remoter areas and more and more villages are becoming isolated. When I say "isolated", I mean that they are entirely without public transport facilities. Unless prompt action is taken, it is certain that many more villages will be isolated in the near future.

All this is common knowledge. The facts cannot be disputed. What is not so clear is the action that the Government propose to take. In the past, the Government have opposed any subsidy for rural transport and I can see that there are powerful arguments against the introduction of a new form of subsidy. But it does not make sense to us that electricity, water, sewerage, telephones and a host of other services in rural areas should be subsidised while transport is left to flounder. If we are not to have rural transport subsidised, at least do not let it be penalised, as it is today, by a very heavy burden of taxation.

I realise that here I am on dangerous ground and that I cannot pursue that argument in this particular debate. I will, therefore, do no more than draw attention to the conclusions reached in the report of the Northumberland Rural Community Council. It makes clear that although the removal of the fuel tax would not solve the problem, it would ease the situation and might lead to some of the buses remaining in service which otherwise would be taken off the roads.

I say to the Government that the countryside demands urgent action on their part. If the will is there, I believe that a solution may be found. Results are demanded, not excuses. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) is present. He is often referred to as a "Suez rebel". I warn the Government that the ranks of the rebels will soon be joined by a "transport rebel" if prompt action is not taken. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will convey the message suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford to the Chancellor, and that action will be taken, and taken soon.

3.27 p.m.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)

I apologise to the House for coming into this debate rather late. I know that it is not usual for an hon. Member to contribute to a debate under such circumstances, but my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) began earlier than was anticipated. I had the privilege of listening to part of his speech, to which tributes have been made from hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I had the advantage of knowing in advance what he proposed to say.

I realise that legislation cannot be discussed during an Adjournment debate, nor can it be pleaded for. But I think I shall be in order in referring to what in my view, is the chief stumbling block in the matter of rural transport, which is Section 72 of the Road Traffic Act, 1930. I remember the time after the 1914–18 War when officers and men de-mobilised from the Services rushed to provide urban and rural transport. They started to run little buses up and down the lanes and roads. Many of them went bankrupt.

Because their working hours were long and there were so many accidents, and because of the internecine competition that took place, the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), in the famous Road Traffic Act of 1930, completely transformed the system of road vehicle licensing to the system which we have in operation today. The architect of our present misfortunes in the rural areas is really the right hon. Member himself. I regret to say that no Government since the war has had the courage to take cognisance—I must not say more than that—of that Section of the Act and amend it.

It is the onus of proof that is wrong today. It is impossible to find a road traffic commissioner who is prepared to allow an applicant to come on roads which, in the ordinary sense of the word, in his discretion, are adequately served. I am not making a plea for the Government to introduce legislation, I am not entitled to do so in this Adjournment debate. But the real trouble is the wording of Section 72 of that Act, and the things which traffic commissioners have to take into account before they can allow a young and enterprising man or firm to start up a bus service which would provide a fair and adequate service in the countryside. The Commissioners have to take into account the extent … to which the needs of the proposed routes or any of them are already adequately served. They have to take into account the extent to which the proposed service is necessary or desirable in the public interest"— whatever that may mean—giving the widest possible discretion to the traffic commissioners to leave things exactly as they are. They have to take into consideration any representations which may be made by persons who are already providing transport facilities along or near to the routes or any part thereof or by any local authority in whose area any of the routes or any part of any of the routes is situated. The result is that an overwhelming weight of evidence against the applicant is produced by the present providers of transport and all the other public authorities appropriate to that Section of the Act, should he present himself before the traffic commissioners. Coming events cast their shadows before: there is not to be found in these days a man of sufficient resources, energy and determination, except in isolated cases, who is prepared to go through the racket, because it is so formidable and unpleasant.

The Government really must take this matter into account and cause the onus of proof of consumer need to be shifted from the applicant to the present provider of the service. Let the people come along with their small buses, their single conductor-driver vehicles, with a price schedule and with prospects of being able to serve the needs of the villagers at fixed times. Let them stand before the commissioners and be given the benefit of the doubt at the beginning, and then let the traffic commissioners take into account the representations that may be made against them. If the onus of proof can be shifted in that way, we can, without going back to those unhappy days of 1921–30, again provide decent rural transport at cheap prices.

In my constituency and just outside it a branch line has recently been discontinued. There is the greatest possible dissatisfaction among my constituents at the enormously high prices they now have to pay for transport into Weymouth or Dorchester. I regret to say that the only service which is now offered is by an organisation called the Southern National Omnibus Company, which is an offshoot of the British Transport Commission. It is one of its great bus companies, partly owned by the Commission and partly by some other concern. It is in a completely monopolistic position upon the routes. No sooner was the branch line discontinued than the prices of fares began to go up because there was no longer the competition offered by the railways. That is the situation with which my constituents are faced.

As they no longer have the railway they must, if they do not own a car, club together and hire a taxi, use a motor cycle or bicycle, or walk. In this day and age, when the Conservative Party is, thankfully, returning, in many fields of industry and commerce, to competition and, one hopes, to reductions in prices, it is nothing short of disastrous that in this aspect of public life a service of the greatest possible importance to the lives and livelihood of our constituents should be neglected.

I urge upon my hon. Friend that he discuss with the Minister of Transport the possibility of making the traffic commissioners pay due attention to the binding stricture upon this aspect of our national life, and make proposals for the next Session of Parliament.

3.34 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I should like to join in the praise which has been given to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) for introducing this subject, and for doing it—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

The Minister has already spoken and can speak again only with the leave of the House.

Mr. Nugent

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I beg to ask leave of the House that I may speak again. I have been speaking so many times today that I am sure you will understand, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that one can easily forget to ask for permission.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford regretted that I had to be brought to the Box again on Maundy Thursday I wondered whether holding the position of Joint Parliamentary Secretary would qualify me for making an application for Maundy money. I think probably not.

I have had the pleasure of listening to a very interesting debate, admirably introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford. He made a most eloquent speech on the evils of what I must admit is the rapidly deteriorating position of rural bus services.

As a countryman, I sympathise with the things which my hon. Friend said so well, because I realise the effect which the present situation is having on the life of the village. The life of the village suffers. Moreover, I am convinced that the countryman makes an essential contribution to our national life. He has something to give to our national life which we simply cannot do without, and anything which weakens the enjoyment and the value of living in the countryside is of concern to us all. For some years I was concerned with agricultural policy, in the Ministry of Agriculture, with seeing that our farmers got an adequate living from their farms and encouraging them to achieve full production, and I am, naturally, all the more concerned that we should do anything we can to help in this matter. There is, however, no simple solution to the problem.

The figures which my hon. Friend gave of the reduction in services in Kent were very worrying. I believe that his figure for the Maidstone Company was a prediction that in 1959 it would see a reduction of over 20 per cent. of its rural services and that the East Kent services would see a contraction of half a million miles. Those are very serious figures. Another aspect of the matter is that inevitably the effect snowballs. We are entering a period when the snowball is growing alarmingly big.

I see from the figures which my Department has produced for me that since 1952 the contraction in the traffic on municipal services has been 7 per cent. Although that is quite serious, it is not calamitous, but we are now running into periods when the reduction is 7 per cent. or even more in one year. Even London Transport was 4 per cent. down between the second half of 1956 and the second half of 1957. I do not doubt that other private operators' figures are moving the same way.

The principal figures in the picture are those showing the increase in the number of motor cars and motor-cycles. From 1954 to 1957 the number of motor cars has increased from 3.1 million to 4.1 million and the number of motorcycles, mostly of the scooter type, has increased from 158,000 in 1951 to about 400,000 in 1957. As hon. Members know, the number of registrations of motor vehicles on the roads is over half a million higher this year than last year. This is going very fast, and my own guess is that the increase in what is called the moped, the light motor-cycle, is accelerating very rapidly. Everyone of these probably means a direct loss to public transport.

Television figures were also mentioned. Since 1952, the number of television sets in the country has increased from 2 million to 9 million. That means fewer visits to the cinemas and fewer visits to the towns for other sources of entertainment. One point which has not been mentioned is the increase in the number of mobile shops. This is another cause of the snowball. Because housewives cannot get into the towns to shop, because the bus service is not good, an enterprising trader sees the opportunity to take a mobile shop around. The shop travels from house to house, and the few housewives who were using the bus to go to the town, decide to shop from the mobile shop—and the receipts from bus fares go down again. That is happening on new housing estates, too.

As has been said, all this decline in receipts from fares is against a background of rising wages, costs of vehicles and costs of spares. The combined result, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford has said, is that the bus companies are finding that their profitable routes are becoming less profitable, and their unprofitable routes becoming even more unprofitable, and he has rightly said that the prospect of increasing fares does not give any simple answer.

The hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) referred to the exceptional resistance there is to increased transport costs. That is a matter of fact. It occurs not only on the buses, but on the railways as well. Railway fares and bus fares have increased far less than have the prices of almost any other of the commodities, services or goods that we use in the community, yet the volume of complaint which greets any increase of these fares is deafening; in fact, deafening in the way that hon. Members would wish that the whisper I am to give to the Chancellor should be.

Bus companies have only to add a ½d. or so to a fare and the number of passengers immediately shrinks. I suppose that it is the old story of supply and demand, and that passengers are able to find alternatives somehow. Either they do not go at all, or they use a bicycle, or, if they have a car, they use it, or they get a lift in a car, or, finally, having totted the whole thing up, they decide that it is worth getting a motor-cycle, or they find some other alternative. Certainly, passengers are very sensitive indeed to any increase in fares.

There is, therefore, extremely little scope in that direction for bus companies to recoup themselves against rising costs or reduction in traffic. The traffic commissioners use their influence in every way they can to get the big operating companies to continue to work unprofitable rural routes, and, in the main, these big operating companies are extremely good—and we should record it—in carrying their share, and even more than their share, of unprofitable routes.

I often see, when I walk along the lanes at home, the local bus with nobody in it at all except the driver. He may be enjoying the country ride, but it must be very expensive indeed for the bus companies. I think that they have done their best to hang on in conditions that have been steadily deteriorating. It is very worrying now to see that they have, apparently, reached the point when they have to shed an increasing number of these services.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) referred to the Report of the Northumberland Rural Community Council, and I have, of course, read it. It is a very interesting survey of just what does happen in a very rural area where these difficulties are occurring. It gives a detailed survey of the structure of 13 operators, showing just how they work, what their revenue is, what passengers there are, the hours that are worked, and so on. Most of these operators are quite small.

That survey has reached the very worrying conclusion that hardly any of the small men will be in a position to replace their existing vehicles when the time comes when they must. The recommendations and general conclusions are still under consideration in my Ministry and, particularly, we have asked our traffic commissioners for their comments on them. We will be having a conference with the traffic commissioners on this survey, so I am not able now to give a considered opinion on it. I would, however, like to express my thanks to those who did it. It is a very valuable document in this perplexing field.

Perhaps I may be allowed now to say just a word about possible remedies, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford and others. First, there is the school bus. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) suggested that local education authorities might allow parents and others to travel in the school bus along with the children. The answer is that they can. The local education authorities are perfectly free to let parents or other adults travel in their school buses if they wish.

Of course, it is easy to get a wrong impression of what the school bus is doing. One sees it starting off with half a dozen children in it from one village, but by the time it has gone around half a dozen villages it is probably full. It is probably going on a circuitous route where other people do not want to go. It probably does not run at weekends or at holiday times. It has its limitations, but it also has its uses. It is up to the local people, when the route taken by the school bus is useful to them, to tell the county council so, and ask whether they may be allowed to travel on the school bus. I would be surprised if education authorities were not agreeable to the suggestion when there were spare places.

As to the further plea which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives about the conductorless bus, the position is that vehicles with 20 or fewer passenger places in them are already allowed to proceed without a conductor. On application to the traffic commissioners, exemption from carrying a conductor may be given in the case of a bus with 26 or fewer places; about 2,480 such concessions have been granted and the number is increasing. It is evident that the bus companies are well aware of this and do make application for exemption for 26-seater vehicles whenever it is considered that this would help them in their problems.

With regard to the small bus which has been referred to, we have recently publicised the relaxation in conditions of fitness which will make it possible for the 12-seater vehicle to qualify. I have in mind such vehicles as the Minibus, which is one of the best known. Up to date their construction and seating arrangement would not have conformed to our regulations. We have now relaxed the regulations relating to the dimensions and seating so that these 12-seater buses can conform with a few adaptations. We have not relaxed the safety requirements, but we have relaxed the seating arrangements. I should say that the Order is still before the House and it is still subject to the will of Parliament as to whether it is approved, but I rather apprehend that it will be.

The advantage of the system is that it involves a low capital cost. These vehicles are quite cheap and it is possible that somebody like the village storekeeper may decide to buy one of these vehicles to use for all kinds of purposes. He may run one passenger journey a day into the local town which would be of great convenience to everybody. I do not suppose that it would be suitable for a man wishing to operate a full-time bus service, but is might easily provide a solution to the problem of linking with the local town on a part-time basis.

One disadvantage is that the big companies are apprehensive that people will buy these Minibuses and use them only for excursion work, thus creaming off what is a paying service to the large companies and not operating stage services which do not pay so well. We do not think that that will happen; on the whole, we think that this idea might help, and after lengthy consultations we decided to adopt it.

Reference has been made to the conditions for licensing. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford referred to the regulations imposed by the licensing authority, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) made a very strong plea for a relaxation of Section 72 of the Road Traffic Act, 1930. I do not think that their apprehensions are justified. The licensing authority certainly has to hear every application for a new bus service.

What the licensing authority is concerned to do is to see that there is a public transport service there. Sometimes he has to refuse an application for some new fare paying service which has been started on an informal basis because what it is doing, in fact, is to abstract a few passengers from an existing operating service. As all these rural services are operating absolutely on a shoe-string now, one has only to take away one or two passengers from them and one probably sinks them altogether.

It is really essential that the licensing authority, in considering any fresh applications, should have regard to the protection of existing services. He must achieve a nice balance. I assure my noble Friend that he does it in a sympathetic and imaginative way, but his problem is not one of keeping out enterprising people who want to come in but of trying to keep in those who are still operating and doing anything he possibly can to get new people to come in and fill the gaps which keep on arising.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

What the traffic commissioner cannot take into account, of course, is the enormous number of persons who would come on to the new bus services if they were provided at cheaper rates. He can take into account only the existing service and the applicant for the service; and it looks to him, as my hon. Friend says, as if the applicant will take away from the existing service. But what the applicant is really doing is to propose something which will gather in a large number of these people in the villages who are now fixed and cannot go to market.

Mr. Nugent

I really do not think that that is so. I very much wish that it were, but it simply is not so. There are just not queues of operators waiting to come in and run services at lower rates than the present. The situation is really the other way. It is all the traffic commissioners can do to keep operators operating the existing rural services. I assure the House that our traffic commissioners are very well aware of this and are sympathetic to anybody who is starting up some sort of informal service. If they possibly can, they let him come in, so long as they are satisfied that he will not take passengers from an existing service and thereby worsen the situation for somebody else. That is the only consideration we have there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford asked whether the B.T.C. would be prepared to subsidise by making a payment towards a rural bus service when a rural rail service is closed. The answer is that the Commission is always very willing to look at proposals of that kind, and, in one or two cases, it has done just that, agreeing to help a local bus service by making a payment when a rail service is closed down. But, naturally, the Commission could not undertake to do that in a general way. Heaven knows, the financial affairs of the Transport Commission are in no condition for it to hand out money right, left and centre; it has to bear its own difficulties as well. The Commission does take a quite sympathetic view of these things where it can.

As regards the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives that the B.T.C. ought to be thinking about something on the lines of a bus on railway lines, a really light vehicle, the answer is that the Commission has gone just as far as it possibly can with its latest light diesel car. A car to run on a railway line has to be very much heavier than a car to run on the road; it must, for instance, stand up to buffering. The capital cost is pretty high for even the simplest possible thing. The first shot the Commission made at it reached about £26,000; it has come down a bit on that, but the thing is still very expensive. I certainly assure the House that the Commission's policy is to try to keep these rural lines open, even to the point of carrying losses which I sometimes rather doubt that it should carry.

As regards subsidies, the Northumberland Rural Community Council had two suggestions to make, one with regard to the fuel tax, which I am not in a position to discuss. I have taken note of the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, by the hon. Member for Sowerby, by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives and by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham. I have to send this message after the Chancellor on his motor tour. If he intends to go to any district with which these hon. Members have any contact, he had better look out or he will find his car disabled in some way and no bus to carry him. I know that my right hon. Friend, being a countryman himself, is well aware of this problem. We have received most cogent representations from the bus operating companies and we have made my right hon. Friend aware of the general problem.

I do not think that the suggestion that the small operator should be subsidised would meet the general position, because most of the rural routes are covered by big operators who balance an unprofitable rural route against a profitable urban route. We are still considering the matter and will give a final considered opinion upon it.

In conclusion, I would say that we have been able to do one or two things to help—particularly by the relaxation of the conditions of fitness which make it possible for the 12-seater to operate where it was not able to operate before. I know that we have secured the most sympathetic outlook from our traffic commissioners and have received co-operation from all the operating companies. It has been admitted on all sides that there is nothing we can do to stop this traffic. After all, this is a trend that we all welcome. It is the result of growing prosperity.

The motor car and the motor bicycle today are the property of Mr. Everyman and Mrs. Everywoman. That is admirable, and we want it to continue. It is a great blessing for the whole community, but inevitably it creates a growing gap between those who have not yet found themselves in a position to buy their own motor car or motor bicycle who still depend on rural transport and, indeed, on public transport in the towns. Our function in Government is to keep in close touch with the situation and to take such measures as we can from time to time to ameliorate harshness, and to do what we can to retain communications for particular villages which are affected, and that we certainly do.

What worries me particularly is the sort of social gap between those who have a motor car and those who have not. This did not matter when most people did not have a motor car and were able to take advantage of the public transport services, but now, when the volume of passenger traffic in certain places is not enough to support public transport, the difference between having a motor car and not having a motor car is whether one is able to go out of the village or not. That is very serious indeed, because it creates a kind of social distinction which none of us would wish to see.

I hope I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford that I am very conscious of the seriousness of this problem. We fully realise that the pace of the trend is increasing, as well as the intensity of the problems. We are continually concerned to make ameliorations where we can. We are not satisfied that we have done everything possible. We will continue to look for improvements and I shall certainly convey as loudly as I can the whisper that I have been asked to convey.