HC Deb 09 March 1966 vol 725 cc2129-40

4.38 p.m.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Eton and Slough)

The problem which I wish to raise is not, despite the title given to it in the list of subjects for debate, unique to Slough and its district. It is a problem common to all areas on the fringes of large conurbations, particularly on the fringes of London, in areas of high employment and high wages. The problem is that local bus transport is breaking down. This is part of the fairly general deterioration in public transport services which has gathered speed during the past 16 months.

We have a special difficulty in Slough, because, as Slough is situated right on the fringe of the London Transport area, the transport boundary runs slap through the middle of the town. Until recently, passengers wishing to travel from one end of the town to the other had to change buses in the middle. Slough is a very long town. The factories are mostly at one end and the largest housing estate is at the other. So workers from the estate had to change buses in the middle of the town, which was bad enough, but worse still because of the inadequacy of the schedules, and even worse because of the failure of both London Transport at the London end of the boundary and Thames Valley on the other side of the boundary even to fulfil their inadequate schedules.

Fortunately, this difficulty has been remedied, and by agreement between London Transport and Thames Valley a certain limited number of buses run right through from one end to another. If we are duly grateful, as we are, for this slight improvement, we have very little else to be grateful for. Thames Valley, in particular, has been slashing its schedules during the last few months and it can no longer pretend to offer an adequate service.

The schedules are inadequate, and, as I said, the buses do not even run to schedule, and, of course, no warning is given to passengers that the buses will not run, so the passengers are often left shivering in the cold and wet on the pavement. What happens is that an advertised bus gathers its passengers, takes them half way to their destination, evicts them unceremoniously at the roadside, and turns round to go back empty to where it started from, leaving them to take another bus which does not come because it has been cancelled.

The result is that it is extremely difficult for workers to get to work on time, which is bad for production and bad for their temper, and still worse for the boss's temper. It also means that children have to start quite unreasonably early in the morning in order to get to school on time and get back very late at night with homework to do, which is bad for their health. The school children and the workers blame one another for shoving one another off the buses at peak hours.

Furthermore, this very unsatisfactory service is far from cheap. It already costs more than an old-age pensioner can afford to travel from the outlying housing estates to the centre of the town where there is any kind of shopping or amusement, and this aggravates the feeling of loneliness and being uprooted which is only too common on these housing estates, particularly among people who have moved there from London. Moreover, the network of buses in an area of low density housing such as Slough and similar areas around London is altogether too widespread. There are vast tracts of housing estates uncovered by any kind of public transport, and within these large tracts of housing estates there are no shops, not even a little corner shop, and no places of amusement.

The result of all this is that those who can use their cars to get to work. This creates a serious parking problem, particularly at the Slough Trading Estate. There it has more or less reached crisis proportions. It does not yet create a major traffic problem. There is not yet major traffic congestion in the area. Traffic congestion is the Ministry of Transport's favourite excuse for the deterioration in public transport. The Ministry says that, because the roads are so clogged, the buses cannot get through, and because the buses cannot get through, people use their cars. It is a vicious circle.

We have not yet reached this point in Slough or the other outlying parts. It may be true of central London, but it is not true of these areas. However, if the Minister does not do something very quickly, we shall have this additional complication. We shall be in a vicious circle from which it is, I freely admit, very difficult to break out, except by measures of restriction on the private motorist.

To my mind, the principal reason why the public transport undertakings are unable to provide a satisfactory service is the difficulty of recruiting crews. This has been said time and time again by Thames Valley. It has been said by London Transport. It was said to me by the local manager of London Transport. The reason for the difficulty in recruiting crews is not pay, which, by and large, with overtime earnings, is more or less adequate, but the split shift system. Bus work is unpopular because it means working in the morning and either hanging about all day or reporting back again for work in the evening.

I spoke about this in our debate on 9th February. I will not go through all of that again, except to say that this difficulty arising from the split shift system is something that must be taken into account in finding a solution. We have these interlocking problems of inadequate schedules, and schedules not adhered to, both being due to the shortage of crews. We have a failure to cope with the load at peak hours, with people left behind because the buses are full. We have a network which is too sparse for low-density areas, and we have relatively high fares, and all these interact one on the other. Faced with this problem the Ministry of Transport wrings its hands in despair and refers complaints to the transport users' consultative committee, which can remedy individual defects and tinker about with the system, but cannot alter policy.

My hon. Friends the Members for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe), Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) and Uxbridge (Mr. Curran), and I, in consultation with the local authorities concerned in the area, have been trying for some months to persuade the Minister to see us so that we can discuss with her the changes in policy that are needed, for nothing less than a change in policy will now suffice. But I am sorry to say that the Minister, like her predecessor, has so far blankly refused even to see us.

What I am saying is perhaps a little academic now, since after 1st April it will be my right hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Sir M. Redmayne) and my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) who will be dealing with these problems. So all I am doing now is crying over spilt milk. But I am putting my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend on warning that if they do not do something about it when they take over I shall make their lives a hell.

When the Minister refused to see our deputation she said that she did not think it would serve any useful purpose unless we had some constructive alternative to suggest. Therefore, I take this opportunity to make two constructive proposals. They are alternatives. I believe that one of them is good, and the other is a good deal less good, but it seems to me that both could be tried on a pilot scheme basis to prove which is better.

The less good one is that of having a municipal bus service in the area heavily subsidised either from the rates, or, if this is to be a Ministry of Transport pilot scheme, from central Government funds, the object being to see whether, if a service is sufficiently heavily subsidised, it can be made so attractive and so efficient as to attract a vastly increased weight of passengers and in due course become entirely independent of the subsidy.

I am not at all sure whether this would work. I believe that something of this sort has been tried and has worked in Sunderland. The situation is obviously very different there, and I am not at all sure that it could work on the outskirts of a major transport undertaking such as London Transport, but it might be worth trying.

The alternative, which I very much prefer, is that which I was hardly able to mention in the debate on 9th February, and this is to try to cut London Transport's operations on the fringes down to the level at which they can operate both profitably and efficiently This could be done, I believe, if London Transport, were able to operate at roughly the same level throughout the day. This would obviate the need for a split shift system and lead to a more economical use of the buses which it has. If this is done there will obviously then be a grossly inadequate capacity at peak hours.

I suggest that we allow private operators to come into this gap to provide the additional buses at peak hours, running under a licence system along London Transport routes. I explained on 9th February how this could be done, because the smaller operators running these buses would have the much greater flexibility that goes with a small firm. When the peak hour buses were not in use, the operators could put their drivers on to other engineering work, repairing customers' cars, and so on.

In that way, London Transport would be operated evenly throughout the day and additional capacity would be provided at morning and evening peak hours by private operators, further supplemented by allowing major firms in the area to run their own buses for their own workers. To do this they should be allowed to charge, otherwise there would be inequality of remuneration for those employees who could and those who could not use the firm's buses.

We could go even further. Private operators could be used to run feeder services to the main routes through the large housing estates, using mini-buses or even very large cars for the purpose. Provided that the vehicles used were adapted to their needs, I believe that there is here a profitable sector for operation with reasonable fares. The result would be not only to increase the amount of traffic along the main routes operated by London Transport and the private operators, but to provide a much better coverage of the large housing estates.

I freely accept that this combination of private and public transport would need co-ordination. It would need licensing. It could not simply be done on a free-for-all-basis. I am, however, convinced that unless a flexible, pragmatic approach such as I have suggested is adopted, we shall have a further deterioration in the provision of bus transport in the outer Metropolitan district to the point where it will shortly break up.

4.52 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

This is almost a repeat performance, but not quite, of 9th February, when the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Sir A. Meyer) raised the subject of public transport in and around Slough. Then, however, the hon. Member and I were slightly circumscribed by the rules of order. On this occasion, the hon. Member has ranged over the whole of the subject that he wished to cover. I will endeavour to reply accordingly.

I wish to correct one point straight away. The hon. Member suggested that my right hon. Friend the Minister and I had refused to meet a deputation of hon. Members of the House. I am quite certain that my right hon. Friend's predecessor, my right hon. Friend and myself have never done any such thing. What happened was that the hon. Members whom the hon. Member mentioned wrote to my right hon. Friend's predecessor and asked to come and see him about matters that were clearly the managerial responsibility of the London Transport Board.

My right hon. Friend quite reasonably pointed out that they were functions in which he was debarred by Statute from interfering, but that if the hon. Members concerned would define the policy issues as distinct from the operational and managerial questions on which they wished to see him, he would be prepared to reconsider the matter. That is the present position of my right hon. Friend.

As Parliamentary Secretary I have certainly never refused to receive any Member of the House, from whatever quarter, in regard to matters that were properly the political responsibility of my Department. I hope that that position will continue.

Sir A. Meyer

I do not have the letter before me, but in his last letter to the present Minister my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) said that a policy decision was now required and that it was no longer a matter for the transport users' consultative committee. He therefore asked the Minister to receive a deputation from us.

Mr. Swingler

Perhaps the hon. Member does not appreciate the enormous number of requests for deputations from local authorities and organised interests, quite apart from hon. Members of the House, who would always have priority with those holding office in the Ministry of Transport, on the vast range of issues which the Department covers. Therefore, if we are to have discussions which bear fruit, it is exceedingly important for us that the policy issues in question should be defined and that proposals should be put to us so that they may be examined before a deputation is received.

The hon. Member has drawn attention to a local situation which illustrates, as he said, a serious problem which confronts us nationally. That serious problem is the continued deterioration, which has been going on over several years, in public transport, especially in our big towns and cities. All hon. Members know that this is no novel situation. It is a Rake's progress which has been going on over a long period, and it is due principally to three factors.

The first factor, which is the main part of the vicious circle—like the chicken-and-egg problem, it is difficult to say where it actually starts—is the increasing traffic congestion. This is not an excuse; it is a fact. We must draw the attention of all to the fact that it will continue to magnify and that there will be more and more traffic as more people who, quite rightly, enjoy the higher standard of living of a Labour Government will be able to own and use their own cars. There will, therefore, be increasing congestion, especially in the urban areas. This has seriously interfered with the operations of public transport operators of all kinds.

I stress "of all kinds". We have three kinds of public transport operators. There are those which are nationally owned, undertakings which are municipally owned, and some which are privately owned. All these operators have been subject to the increasing traffic congestion in the towns arising from the use of cars by commuters, and this has created a deterioration in their ability to move.

Secondly, as the hon. Member mentioned, a closely linked problem is that of shortage of staff, which is much worse in some places than in others. It has particularly badly affected Slough and district. The hon. Member knows well from his correspondence with the London Transport Board concerning Route 81, for example, that Hounslow garage is 18 per cent. below strength in bus drivers. That is a serious matter. It means that the Board cannot provide an adequate service. This is admitted. It is due to staff shortage. The same problem has also affected Thames Valley and other important routes, including Windsor garage. The shortage of both drivers and conductors seriously affects the ability of London Transport and Thames Valley to provide the adequate service which, under the law, they are supposed to provide.

The third factor that naturally follows from these other two is the worsening financial position. I do not want to repeat what I said in reply to the hon. Member on 9th February, but we all know that the position has been closely investigated during the present Parliament by the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, which devoted a great deal of time to examining all these affairs, especially financial, of the London Transport Board and analysing the deterioratiing position.

In consequence of that, as I said, this Government—my right hon. Friend's predecessor—took the special action last summer of making for the first time in its history a direct grant to the London Transport Board to avert temporarily a further vicious circle of fare increases and loss of traffic. It was insufficient and I use this opportunity to say again that, unfortunately, we face a position where probably the London Transport Board will need further financial help in some form or another in 1966.

So that we have this position, which we do not, let me assure the hon. Gentleman, approach in a spirit of despair, as the hon. Gentleman suggested we in the Ministry of Transport were, that these public transport operators are not able to fulfil either of the functions imposed by this Government's predecessors upon the London Transport Board. The two functions were, first to provide an adequate service for the public, and, secondly, to pay its way, to be financially viable. We find a situation in 1966 where it is neither financially viable owing to the loss of traffic nor is it able to provide an adequate service.

This is one of the reasons, therefore, why my right hon. Friend has very recently established the Transport Co-ordinating Council for London, a new body composed of representatives of the Greater London Council, the London Transport Board, the British Railways Board, and representatives of the London boroughs, to come to grips with the sort of recommendations made by the Select Committee about the L.T.B.'s financial structure and future. But immediately there is the problem of co-ordination, especially in peripheral areas like Slough, where London Transport meets such operators as Thames Valley.

But in order rapidly to propose the financial reforms which we recognise are urgently needed we have to decide whether these aims are irreconcilable, as irreconcilable they appear to be—the provision of an adequate public transport service, and, at the same time, a system which pays its way. We are quite firm, and my right hon. Friend has announced this quite definitely, that our aim must be to provide adequate public transport in our towns. That is the only way in which we can solve the problem. Therefore, we shall review the legislation of the past and the system for the future to decide by what means financially we shall be able to cover the losses which at present confront us.

Let me say a word about private operators. The hon. Gentleman was sug- gesting that we could get a lot more help, to supplement and augment services provided, for example, by the L.T.B. and Thames Valley in areas like Slough, by the recruitment of private operators. Let me say that on the part of the Government and the London Transport Board there is no objection to private operators. Indeed, the Board, as the hon. Gentleman knows, recently consented, where private operators applied, to their coming in and operating several routes.

There is no objection to firms running their own transport, but the hon. Gentleman will recognise that if they are running their own transport for work journeys for their workers and are making charges they are entering the field of public transport and they must, therefore, be licensed under the laws we have had for very many years, and that in itself would create difficulties. If, on the other hand, firms wish to run transport, but not to make charges to the workers, there is absolutely no objection to that.

What is the situation about private operators in the area of the London Transport Board? The situation is that nobody has applied since 1962—with one exception, and in that case consent was given. A private operator applied in the Eton and Slough area to run a service between High Wycombe and London Airport to link with services from the West, and he was given consent. He is the only example of a private operator coming forward to use the facilities of the 1962 Act; and he applied to the London Transport Board for consent to go to the traffic commissioner to have a service licensed. Therefore, we say to the hon. Gentleman and to others that if there are private operators who are willing to come forward in order to supplement existing services, let them come forward, let them make application to those who are at present in the field under existing law. I think that what the Board has recently decided as its policy shows that the applications will be given favourable consideration.

We must recognise that there is a need for a combined operation of public and private operators in this field, though I should, of course, say this. As a matter of realism we must recognise that we cannot have a situation where private operators cream off all the remunerative routes leaving the public operators with only the unremunerative routes, for that would only worsen the position of those like the L.T.B. charged with responsibility in major centres with providing an adequate public transport system. It would imply that they must be permanently in receipt of subsidy. We want in some form or another to make public transport financially viable.

Nevertheless, especially in peripheral areas, it may well be that, because of staff shortage and traffic congestion and financial difficulties, the London Transport Board cannot provide the comprehensive service we would hope in the future we can organise it to provide, and if private operators who wish to do so will come forward they will receive reasonable consideration as to how they can augment the service.

Sir A. Meyer

Does that include operators along the same routes as London Transport and at peak hours?

Mr. Swingler

This is something which has been done, and it will be considered, but again, it is not for us at the Ministry to say: it is a managerial matter for the London Transport Board. I do say that the Board, in the action that it has had to take, owing especially to staff shortage, in the streamlining and reduction of services, has at the same time, approached in a very reasonable way the applications of private operators to come in and supplement the services.

I must mention again that, in spite of the dark sides and difficulties of this picture, nevertheless, as, I think, the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, we have in his area managed to make some improvement. There was the difficulty of the L.T.B. and Thames Valley, but at the initiative of Slough Borough Council the London Transport Board, in conjunction with Thames Valley, has now been operating since 22nd January this year a new cross-town route and the Board has recently introduced an express coach service from Windsor to London, and with new and more comfortable coaches. So that some effort has been shown to make technical improvements and to accept the suggestions which are put forward by local representatives.

To conclude, can the attack on this public transport problem be the responsibility of any one organisation in any area? It is a problem which confronts us all—as citizens, as passengers, as travellers, as car-owners and drivers or as travellers on buses and trains, and especially, of course, local authorities charged with responsibility for traffic management. They all face some part of the challenge of the growth in the number of cars and the difficulties of making public transport viable financially and organised adequately.

We hope that, in developing the policy of transport co-ordination, all who are concerned with these responsibilities will come forward with their suggestions as to how to make the services more adequate, how to manage the traffic regulations better, how to co-ordinate the operators in a better way, and whether they are authorities like the new Greater London Council, or the L.T.B., or private operators.

They will put their heads together as transport operators and local representatives dealing with traffic management, so that all over the country we can get transport co-ordination councils where those concerned with different facets of the problem will come together. Only in that way will we maintain adequate transport facilities in our cities and towns for the future.

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