HC Deb 08 November 1971 vol 825 cc773-88

10.15 p.m.

The Minister for Transport Industries (Mr. John Peyton)

I beg to move,

That the New Bus Grants (Increase of Rate and Extension of Period) Order 1971, a draft of which was laid before this House on 18th October, in the last session of Parliament, be approved.

I seek approval of the House to two changes in the New Bus Grant Scheme under Section 32 of the Transport Act, 1968. The first is to double the rate of grant from 25 per cent. to 50 per cent. of capital costs. The second is to extend the life of the scheme by five years from 1975 to 1980.

The grant is paid to operators on approved capital expenditure on new vehicles to be used on stage services. Section 32(4) of the Transport Act set the rate of grant at 25 per cent. and the length of the scheme at seven years. Section 32(5) enables the Secretary of State to vary these terms, provided that the draft Order has been approved by Resolution of both Houses.

The scheme had three principal aims: to encourage conversion to one-man operation, to improve the comfort of travel, and to reduce the number of minor variations in design. The scheme has made a good start, but we seek to accelerate the process by increasing the rate of grant.

It would be undesirable, however, to concentrate orders for new vehicles within too short a period. In any case, it is clear that the original length of the scheme, seven years, is insufficient to see through the conversion of double-deck buses to one-man operation. Hence the proposal to extend the scheme by five years to a total of 12 years, which is the normal term of depreciation in the industry.

Higher costs and fewer passengers have meant pressures on operators, who need help now if they are to carry out sensible renewal programmes. Payment of new bus grant is rnnning at present at rather less than £7 million a year. Allowing for an upswing if the rate is increased, this could rise to about £16 million a year from 1972 onwards.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Neil Carmichael (Glasgow, Woodside)

We on this side of the House approve of this Order. Indeed, it would be difficult for us to do otherwise since it is really an extension of the principle of the grant made in Section 2 of the Transport Act, 1968.

It is interesting to look back to the Committee stage of that legislation and see how fervently it was opposed by the Conservative Party. In fact, its opposition went as far as a Division.

May I ask the Minister for clarification on one or two points? First, he has just used again the terms which appear in the Order and which were contested so hotly during the Committee stage of the Transport Bill. A great deal has happened in three and a half years, and I wonder whether the experience gained in that time has helped to clear up one or two of the doubts then raised by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite.

The phrase in the original Bill which is used again in the Order is the "approved capital expenditure". There was great concern among right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite in Committee that this would have a stultifying effect on bus chassis design. I am not making a party point at this stage, but I should be pleased if the Minister would tell us how this has worked out in practice. Has there been over-standardisation? Has the standardisation which has arisen been detrimental to good bus design? Does the Minister feel that the efforts made in Committee and at St. Christopher House have been detrimental to the general standard of bus design? I should be pleased if the Minister could give me an idea how the original Act has worked in practice. I know that he has asked that the period be extended to 12 years. This is all to the good. I hope that after that period it may be extended again.

This brings me to the second, more general, point. I believe that the Minister will agree that thinking on public transport all over the world has changed drastically in the last four years, particularly in North America, from where we so often take our lead on such problems. Does the increase in the new bus grant from 25 to 50 per cent. and the extension of the period from seven to 12 years of approved expenditure mean that the Government are seized with the importance of some of this new thinking? [MR. CARMICHAEL.]

While approving the Order, may I ask whether this is not just a small beginning but an awakening of a whole new look at the importance of public transport? I believe that this is necessary for the reasons which I have mentioned.

Finally, is it too early to think that, because of this Order and the thoughts which I hope are behind it, the Minister may be contemplating the possibility of a new White Paper on the importance of public transport? Throughout the country, particularly in the conurbations, there is a desire that our thinking should be brought up to date in Government terms and that some idea of the Government's thinking should be put forward. I should be pleased if the Minister would consider these points and enlighten the House.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I support the thought behind the Order. Improved public transport could mean less offensive use of private transport. We might even achieve the removal of the motor car from the centres of many of our great cities. Some of us in this House might even live to see Parliament Square free of traffic, except for improved public transport.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to tell us something about the details of construction, to which he referred in his opening remarks, to deal with the noise and smell, to put it in layman's terms, caused by public service vehicles.

I was very disturbed recently, when standing at the bottom of one of the great streets in the City of Bristol, to be enveloped in a sooty cloud and deafened by a roaring noise which was being sent out by one of our brand new buses. I have yet to satisfy myself that the company responsible—indeed, the City has a substantial interest in it— is doing all that it can to get rid of the adverse effects of these new vehicles. I am not sure that the passengers find them particularly comfortable.

I do not believe that enough is being done. I have seen public service buses running about the country—in the countryside in particular—which have been on the road for many years and are a deal quieter than the new Bristol buses. I do not want to labour the point, but I think that my right hon. Friend ought to say a little about that this evening, because surely public service vehicles should give the lead.

I know that my right hon. Friend is introducing new standards, but perhaps I might express a personal view. I think that he has been fairly timid in reducing the number of decibels that are permitted, and that the majority of the population would like to see those decibels got down a deal further a deal quicker. I hope that when he has had time to collect his thoughts he will reply to the debate and say something encouraging about this.

If the grant is to be increased from 25 per cent. to 50 per cent., which seems to be a 100 per cent. increase, and the term of years is to be extended, one hopes that there will be a great improvement in the performance of public service vehicles, and that in future they will give pleasure not only to passengers but to those who have to have these things running through their lives.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Bob Brown (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

I do not want to say anything about St. Paul, but we are seeing some conversions in this Chamber this evening, especially when one bears in mind the endless hours of tedium and repetition with which we were belaboured in Committee in 1968. In fact, we spent several hours on this one Clause, during which time right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite did not seem at all keen on what to them was almost one of those desperate red plots, a Socialist plot, to finance the building of buses. To them it was almost the first step towards the complete nationalisation of public passenger transport.

I was not a member of the Committee. but I spent some time in and out of it, and I read its proceedings with interest. I remember some of the almost horrifying suggestions which followed the proposal that we should make a 25 per cent. grant for new buses. I am delighted to support the Order because, although I have criticised the Government severely, and at length, in recent times on their complete lack of activity in the regions, I am sure that the Minister is barely aware of the fact that he is giving a great boost to the Northern region, in the form of West Cumberland, by increasing the grant. I am certain that it will have a profound effect upon the number of new buses built in West Cumberland and bring a little light into an area which is in complete despair as a result of the policies so far pursued by the Government. I hand the right hon. Gentleman a massive compliment for the fact that, quite unwittingly, he is doing something to help the regions.

I hope that this conversion will continue in the years ahead, and that when this 12-year extension is drawing to an end whichever Government are in power will realise that if public passenger transport is to continue to maintain its place in the country—and I suggest that it is necessary that it should—this provision must be continued for all time. The sooner the Government of this country, of whichever political complexion, realise that public passenger transport can compete with the private motor car only if we, as a nation, are prepared to recognise the need to support public passenger transport. the better it will be for everyone. I hope that the Government will continue to develop their thoughts along the lines they have shown this evening, and take them even further than the right hon. Gentleman has done tonight.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)

I, too, welcome the belated conversion of several hon. Gentlemen opposite to the cause of public transport—although I will not pursue the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) through the obviously polluted streets of his own constituency.

I welcome the increase not only in the percentage grant but also in the length of qualifying scheme, which will be of substantial benefit to the manufacturing industry, in which my constituents play a part. But how does the Minister intend to achieve the standardisation which was always the original endeavour of these grants? I was a member of the Standing Committee to which my hon. Friend referred when the whole idea of bus grants was being introduced to further the cause of standards.

Standardisation, the pace of which has been so slow, has proceeded in some areas without regulation by the Minister through the endeavours of the manufacturers. If he considers the efforts of the Northern Counties, M.C.W. and Park Royal in the buses they have built for the SELNEC P.T.A. and the West Midlands P.T.A., he will agree that this is so. If we are to go on paying grants to this extent, we must decide on our standardisation policy. We must also examine the policies of other countries, which have been pursuing extended bus grant systems. The system now obtaining in West Germany suggests that extended grants achieve far more standardisation than we have so far achieved.

Despite the fact that the grants scheme has been going for nearly two years, we still do not have standardised sizes of windows, of public entrances or even of destination indicators. If we are to get the long production runs which surely entitle this industry above all to economies of scale, there must be standardisation at least in these respects. I do not know what discussion the Department has had with the passenger transport authorities, but when even they, surely the largest purchasers of these buses, cannot agree on standardisation, something must be lacking.

Although my constituency is not so polluted, I am like the hon. Member for Bristol, West, concerned about the environmental effects of public transport. Many cities in this country and abroad are now seriously thinking of reverting to electric traction and even tramways because they will no longer tolerate the pollution of diesel buses and internal combustion engines. Particularly when the Leyland National Bus is being designed with an eye on world markets, these grants should have been used to enable Leyland and all the others competing in these fast growing export markets to spend some time on trying to meet the increasingly arduous environmental standards which are being imposed by local authorities abroad.

After all, we are now under increasing competitive pressure from the Japanese and the Germans in cars, and the Germans in particular are scooping the market in this country for heavy haulage vehicles. I hope that, at least in heavy public transport vehicles, this country will retain some pre-eminence.

Although I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his true devotion to the cause of public transport, I wonder how he squares his ambition to increase the grants to public transport and for the purchase of vehicles with his proposition to liberalise the existing licensing system, which will have as its end result the withering away of many public transport systems. The scheduled services and the operators of the buses he is trying to encourage will suffer from his proposal to allow any Tom, Dick and Harry who owns a car to give lifts on a regular basis and his proposal to extend the operations of unlicensed minibuses. How can the right hon. Gentleman pose as the saviour of public transport when he has in the Department proposals which can have as their conclusion only the detriment of rural transport facilities?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows that one of the difficulties which have arisen over standardisation of bus purchasing has been the failure of passenger transport authorities to come to working procedural arrangements over maintenance. I refer particularly to the Leyland Atlantian bus. The committee which I believe the Department set up to examine the failures of maintenance of the Leyland Atlantian ought by now to have reached a conclusion. If the right hon. Gentleman is to encourage the further standardisation of bus purchases, ought he not to have produced an answer now for the many people who have been complaining about the Department's previous efforts on standardisation?

I am glad that the percentage and the time period are being increased. If the right hon. Gentleman means to put himself forward as the proponent of those who want to save the environment and as the Minister who prolonged the active life of public transport, he must at the same time provide far more assurances than he has done hitherto about the future of the licensing system. Before the bus industry considers the purchase of new buses, it will need a licensing system which will give those who run the business, the drivers, the staff, and those who maintain the business some confidence.

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

We are straying beyond the terms

of the Question that we are discussing, which relates not to licensing but to an increase in the rate and an extension of the period of bus grants. If the hon. Gentleman will help me I shall be obliged.

Mr. Huckfield:

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That was my final sentence.

10.38 p.m.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

I am a little apprehensive Mr. Deputy Speaker, in view of your intervention, which was absolutely correct. I could not see how the final points made by the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) came within the ambit of the Order. What was in order was the hon. Gentleman's point that in making this improvement in the grant my right hon. Gentleman could well have powers to bring about some of the improvements referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke). If at the same time he can accede to the general desire and do something to reduce the pollution which comes from all vehicles, particularly from public service vehicles, we shall be doing the right thing.

It would be very welcome if public service routes could be so arranged that inside those routes there could be some purely pedestrian routes where pedestrians could shop free from pollution and noise.

I am sorry that I must ask my right hon. Friend to look carefully at the advice given him by the hon. Member for Nuneaton. The advantages of standardisation are obvious. The need for many machine tools is eliminated. However, I do not believe that it is the Government's job to promulgate regulations to secure standardisation.

The hon. Gentleman asked my right hon. Friend to tell people exactly what should be the size of the windows and doors of buses. He spoiled his argument by referring to the export potential. It may be that the standardisation which would make him happy in Nuneaton would not make people happy in countries to which we hope to export. We should not go far wrong if we left the industry to the pressures which come from customers so that there is freedom for improvement and new ideas without making the buses so expensive that the local authorities cannot pay for them.

My right hon. Friend is right to increase the grant. It may be against what has been recommended from these benches in the past, but one advantage of a Tory Government is that they are not dogmatic. They are prepared to live and learn and that is what we want British Governments to do. It is when they have a one-track mind, as, for example, the hon. Member for Nuneaton has, that they are bad.

My right hon. Friend says that he is likely to be timid. I have never known him to be so. He will go forward with confidence, knowing that this is the right thing to do. If he can at the same time help to cure pollution and resist the suggestion that we need Government regulations for standardisation, if he will bear in mind that the more freedom we give the industry the more likely it is to export, and if he can leave clear streets alongside the polluted highways where the buses run, he will have my support.

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones (Carmarthen)

I do not desire to pursue the remarks of hon. Members who have spoken on standardisation and pollution. I regard the grant as a contribution to the continuation of the public transport system. The problem we have to face is concerned not with new buses but with keeping the old buses in existence. I hope that the conversion of the Government to the facilities provided by the Transport Act, 1968, will ensure that they go further than tonight's Order, not with new buses but with the existing system of the old companies.

I support what was said by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) about standardisation, but standardisation is not the issue; the issue is the maintenance of what is now in decline. I represent a county constituency of 800 square miles where during the last year vast areas, including Carmarthen and Ammanford, have lost their public bus facilities. The Minister referred to the value of one-man operation. In my area unemployment has increased 100 per cent. during the last year, and one-man operation will make this situation worse.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. We are going beyond the terms of the Order. The Order increases the rate of the new bus grant from 25 per cent. of the approved capital expenditure to 50 per cent. It also extends the period during which new buses will be eligible for the grant from seven years beginning on 1st September, 1968, to 12 years from that date. Anything beyond that is, strictly speaking, out of order.

Mr. Jones:

I note your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the Minister referred to the implementation of one-man operation and I was posing the question that one-man operation in certain parts of the country where unemployment is high will make the problem worse, as with Ammanford and the South Wales Transport Company.

The Minister referred to £7 million per year provided through the Transport Act, 1968, and the grant as it is at present. Of the £7 million, how much is provided for Wales? Of the £16 million in 1972, what is the Department's projection for the Principality, where there is the greater problem of bringing people to centres of industry and the railway service? The Minister will be aware of the discussions about the future of railway lines in Wales; it is no use having a railway system from Carmarthen unless there are buses to take people to Carmarthen to catch the trains.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I join my hon. Friends in welcoming the extension of a system introduced by the Labour Government. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) posed an important question. I should have liked to ask the Minister whether the Order would aptly apply to trolleybuses. They constituted a system of traction which was very quick, fumeless, noiseless and largely dependent on the domestic coal supply.

Although I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) said about that, I do not entirely agree with him about standardisation, because standardisation is a good thing only if the right standards are applied and I am by no means satisfied with the present standards adopted under this scheme, however well meaning the originators may have been. I have in my hand a report from the National Old People's Welfare Council about the elderly and transport. In paragraph 67 it says: It is, however, important that the one-man buses—which are being designed and built now —should be satisfactory. If a one-man bus has a step which is no lower than that of a conventional double-decker, then the inconvenience is aggravated by the absence of a conductor and the need to have the fare immediately ready.

In my constituency and many other parts of London we now have single-decker, one-man operated buses which are very inconvenient and yet, I understand, they attracted the 25 per cent. grant. Many elderly people fear having to use these buses. They are difficult even for younger people with children and even for physically active people when they have shopping. This is not the sort of development I want to see encouraged.

Paragraph 20 of the report puts it in a nutshell; it says: It is to be hoped that bus operators and legislators"—

presumably that means us— will take into account the particular needs of old people and, where they are introducing a one-man operation, also introduce lower steps on the buses they use.

Although the total height of the steps may be the same as those now used, it is not only the height of the steps but their situation which is important. Out of 1,000 old people's clubs that we asked for views on the subject, 839 said that unsatisfactory design was one of the important features to be considered.

Some time ago I corresponded with the Minister on the subject. I understand that regulations refer to buses suitable for one-man operation on stage carriage services: and of a type approved by the Minister".

I understand that types which he has approved—and no doubt types which will be approved in future—have been jointly approved by the users, that is the buyers, and the manufacturers of the buses. This at first sight would appear to be an excellent arrangement and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) pointed out that the buyers of the buses, the users, would presumably reflect the views of the passengers. However, in practice it has not worked out like that. I understand that there is a division of opinion among the operators about what standards shculd be applied.

I have had a letter from the general manager of a municipal undertaking which is very much to the point. He has been in discussion with some of his colleagues about the height of the floors of buses and about the height of the steps. He has fortunately been able to get some co-operation from the Minister on this point. He says: The battle is by no means won for the manufacturers are naturally concerned that their products should be equally acceptable on the overseas market, where there seems to be little consideration given to the needs of the elderly. The new Leyland National single-deck bus shown at Earls Court last year which, with British Leyland's virtual monopoly in the bus building field in this country, may well become the only single-deck bus which it is possible to buy, has a second step which is ten inches high and, in my view, far too high for the comfort of any passenger. Since starting this campaign, I have had letters from a number of other operators who from experience share my views, but we are still very much in the minority. The manufacturers are bound to follow the majority demand although we can quite rightly point out that making the chassis suitable for a low floor arrangement in no way precludes those who wish to adopt a high floor from building on top of it.

That puts the point better than any of us could.

Up to the moment the Department has accepted the standards which have been joint recommendations. I hope that in future the Minister will look a little more closely at the sort of points I have brought to his attention. We are concerned with the needs of people, and in my constituency these buses are not successful. In London the new double-deckers are looked upon as being of better design than the new single-deckers and as the public now contribute 50 per cent. towards the cost of new buses we must surely ensure—it is the Department's job to do so— that the public get the buses they deserve. Buses of good design should be suitable for all. What is suitable for an elderly or disabled person is better for everybody.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Peyton:

By leave of the House, I should like to reply. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Woodside (Mr. Carmichael) asked whether the Government were seized of the importance of public transport. I do not wish to delay the House by giving a long and verbose answer, and instead I will give the clear and categoric answer "Yes". I accept the importance of design, but the design variations have up to now been reduced by restricting grants to specified dimensional and other standards. I am examining the possibility of a voluntary standardisation scheme which might be slightly more responsive and effective. We have not made enough progress in this direction so far.

The hon. Member said that particularly in conurbations there was a burning desire for a White Paper on the subject. I do not challenge that there is probably a desire for information but I have always had the greatest scepticism whether anyone anywhere in the world desires a White Paper. So far as possible, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall follow a policy of abstinence and will spare the House and the public a deluge of White Papers on this or any other subject.

Mr. Carmichael:

I was asking for a White Paper so that we might know the future thoughts of the Government. If the right hon. Gentleman declines to issue a White Paper how does he propose giving us some idea of future thinking, in the longer term, on conurbation transport?

Mr. Bob Brown


Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. We cannot have an intervention on an intervention.

Mr. Peyton:

I dislike straying beyond the rules of order, for which I have always had great respect. I would prefer to confine myself to this subject. The hon. Gentleman is aware of the almost unlimited opportunities available to Parliament to discuss these matters. I hope to introduce proposals on another aspect of the bus industry in the near future and these will doubtless give him the chance of making further observations.

Mr. Bob Brown:

The right hon. Gentleman has made the point that he has had second or even third thoughts on some of the questions raised tonight. If he is not prepared to publish a White Paper, how are we to get this information? I am not being facetious when I say that I am doing a weekend school next spring about public passenger transport and that I would like to know what the Government have in mind for the future.

Mr. Peyton:

It distresses me no end to think that the hon. Gentleman is to do a weekend school next spring on the subject of public transport and will not have the immense boon of a White Paper from the Government addressed to the House. I am very sorry for him but he will have to content himself with my sympathy in this terrible state of deprivation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) raised the question of noise and smell caused by public service vehicles. No doubt he took the whole House with him in a wave of sympathy when he told us how he was engulfed in the cloud of smoke and was shaken badly by roaring noise. He made his story of horror even worse by alleging that it was produced by a new bus. I am in no way casting doubt on the accuracy of his observations but I can only tell him that my right hon. Friend shares with me very fully a great dislike of noise—sometimes we have too much of it rather near at hand. But certainly I shall see that all those concerned, whether as manufacturers or as beneficiaries of any kind from this Order, are aware of my hon. Friend's views.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West reproached me, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Peter-borough (Sir Harmar Nicholls), until he thought better of it, with timidity.

Mr. Robert Cooke:

We both thought better of it.

Mr. Peyton:

I am glad, because I am obliged to say with modesty that I hope that timidity is something from which I have always suffered.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Bob Brown) welcomed my conversion to his cause. Of course I am always very happy to be in his company when he has sensible ideas. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) who made the point, as did the hon. Member for Woodside, about design, with which I have dealt, will of course have full opportunity to oppose such proposals as I make in due course when they are before the House on the subject of licensing. For the moment, however, I think he would not expect me to defend proposals which are not concerned with this Order and which have not yet been made formally to the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peter-borough made a most moving plea for purely pedestrian streets. In so far as it is within my poor powers to produce such a desirable state of affairs, I shall lend myself to do it with enthusiasm.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynoro Jones), to whom I have not had the pleasure of listening in the House before but look forward to doing so again, spoke with infinite charm about difficulties in Wales. I do not believe, despite the charm with which he put his case, that the fact of one-man buses every now and then really exacerbates the problems of the Principality. He asked me how much of the existing £7 million and of the future £16 million is to be deployed in Wales. I am unable to give the answer now and I doubt whether the figure is available without difficulty, but if, without undue labour on the part of the limited number of civil servants now employed, I can provide the hon. Member with the information, I shall certainly do my best.

The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) mentioned trolleybuses. There are few that I am more anxious to please than the hon. Member, but I am sorry that I cannot hold out much prospect of trolleybuses coming within the Order.

On the question of the elderly and the disabled, I readily recognise the hon. Member's concern. He has pursued the point with the Department before, with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I accept what the hon. Member says, but the matter is not quite as easy or as simple as he seemed to suggest. However, I certainly undertake to give further thought to the views that he expressed with eloquence and feeling.

With those remarks. I hope that the House will accept the Order.

Question put and agreed to.


That the New Bus Grants (Increase of Rate and Extension of Period) Order 1971, a draft of which was laid before this House on 18th October, in the last session of Parliament, be approved.

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