HC Deb 18 March 1976 vol 907 cc1772-84

3.5 a.m.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of public transport in North Herefordshire. I am also grateful for the attendance of the Minister, who looks as alert as ever at this late hour. He is, by now, well used to rural Members such as myself raising this, for us, vital topic. From what he has said in the past, no doubt he appreciates our point of view and will realise that while I shall outline many arguments that have been put forward in the House before—some I hope have not—I shall also urge him to take action.

In outlining my concern I am also reiterating something which happened in another place the night before last and also in this House yesterday through my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce).

My qualifications for raising this subject are as good as, if not better than, anyone else's. I represent an area of 600 square miles. There is only one traffic light in the whole area. That traffic light was planned by the last Government and was put in by this Government. There are, within the 600 square miles, very many hamlets and scattered parishes of all descriptions. The journey to such essentials as the shops, the doctor, the chemist and so on is often many miles.

That problem is shared with other rural areas throughout the country. In common with similar areas, our bus services have been getting worse. Services have been contracting and subsidies—as much as we all would like to give them—are not in abundance any more and are constantly under challenge and cut back. Apart from the bus services there is a threat that we may suffer in respect of our train services.

I shall not put too many points to the Minister tonight about trains because a person can deal with only so much at any one time. However, the Minister will know that there is a threat of closure on the Worcester to Hereford railway line with all its stopping points, as well as many other railway lines in the area. Anything the Minister could say about that tonight I appreciate may be somewhat premature, from his point of view, but it would be very much appreciated by my constituents.

There are a large number of elderly people in my constituency and they form the principal sector of the community that is suffering from the problems of rural transport. On the other side of the coin, there are young people. It is difficult keeping them in an area which needs development very badly in order to keep it young and to preserve its way of life. The young people who do stay often have to travel a long way to work on a diminishing transport system. That is yet another incentive for them to move away.

I should like to address the House on the subject generally, but I also want to mention some of the background to public service vehicle licensing because it helps to set the scene. I also want to drive home the point that this is not a partisan submission. Far from it—it is bipartisan. It has been recognised by successive Governments that there need to be changes. The original law is extremely dated and comes from the Road Traffic Act 1930 under which control passed from local authorities to traffic commissioners. I shall be giving some more details of this aspect and suggesting that the power should once more go back towards the local authorities.

The recent developments have shown a prevailing drift towards change, but change is a long time coming. One of the most recent examples of this change is the Transport Act 1968 which was passed by a previous Labour Government. Section 30 contains two very good provisions—the power to get permits for not more than 12 passengers and the power to have fare-paying passengers not on local authority school buses but on school contract buses. I do not believe that those opportunities are being sufficiently taken up by local authorities or others.

But they are not the answer to the problem. If they were, we would not be here tonight. The next step on the same course was the last Conservative Government's Road Traffic Bill during 1973–74 which got as far as Second Reading. That contained three improvements. First was the legal right to give lifts for payment. Second, it freed the minibus in rural areas from the licensing procedure, provided that there was no interference with existing bus routes. That is a consideration that is stressed by everyone who makes any proposal in this field. Third, the public interest would have become the principal licensing criterion. I appreciate that under the 1930 Act the public interest has to be taken into account by the commissioners but they would have made it the principal criterion.

Tonight I re-read parts of the Second Reading debate on the Conservative Bill. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley), who was Opposition spokesman at the time, approached these proposals in a bipartisan way, and that point should be taken into account. He had a natural concern to protect existing bus services and mentioned that certain points would be raised in Committee, but he had no objection in principle to the proposals.

This matter continues to be raised constantly in the House. The Road Traffic Act 1974 originally contained a clause exempting vehicles of not more than 12 passengers capacity, but that was withdrawn during passage through the House for discussions. The point that must be reiterated is that discussions are still going on.

We come to the last pronouncement on the subject on 3rd December 1975 when the present Minister for Transport announced that experimental projects would be set up in three or four areas. There would be a short Bill, he said, but we have yet to see it. It would implement the exceptions to the present licensing provisions that those projects would require. We are still waiting. How long do we have to wait? If we are waiting, it would be worth waiting for Herefordshire and Worcestershire to become one of the experimental areas. It is ideal for that purpose. It is an intensely rural area, but it is also near to the West Midlands conurbations and it has buses that leave the towns for the rural areas and then return on the same routes. It has purely rural transport as well.

I readily appreciate the problem. We have to establish new licensing procedures and to be fair to existing interests. No one denies that. But no one denies, either, that the existing interests are to a certain extent vested interests. We are dealing with large numbers of men who work hard and earn very good money. They are afraid lest that good money should be taken away. It becomes vitally important to have trade union participation in all the proposals that I am about to put forward. There need be no fear, and it is important for hon. Members on both sides to keep emphasising that fact. If, for example, there is a bus service which runs in the early morning to some remote spot and it is decided that a minibus can do the same job and offer a better service, why should there not be rationalisation? It may not mean the end of a man's job—just that the matter should be considered overall.

My suggestions come under one all-important heading. We are dealing with the rural transport and we have to aim in the direction of co-ordinating all available transport in rural areas. There has been far too much wastage, and there are far too many vehicles charging around—one for the school, one for the post, one for the elderly and so on. Every available vehicle must be used in a coordinated system.

I wish to raise some points for the Minister's consideration. First, I want the private car exempted from the licensing system. That is long overdue and has come very near to being passed by this House. People combine unofficially now. It would be more sensible if they could combine officially and be encouraged to do so. It is up to us to give them a lead.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, the small operator and the minibus must be encouraged. It is well worth considering moving both the licensing and route control of such a system on to the local authorities because if the system were superintended by the county councils, the parish and district councils could be brought in. Members of the parish and district councils know where there is a need for a route and where people are suffering—because suffering they are—genuine hardship through having no public transport.

Thirdly, school buses, both contract and local authority-owned, should be coordinated under local authorities. At the moment there is great wastage in this area because the buses deposit the children and after that are not utilised. They must be utilised. The whole system cries out to be co-ordinated. I hope and expect that in whatever experiment takes place, wherever it takes place, co-ordination will be part of it.

Fourthly, the exemption of voluntary organisations is important in rural areas. The Minister will know how important it is for these organisations, from the Church right down to the Women's Institute, to lay on their own transport. According to the definition of the area they have to charge their members the fares for the journey.

I turn to post buses. If this has been talked about for one year it must have been talked about for 20 years or more. There are about 30 licensing systems in England and Wales. The Scots, being somewhat more thrifty, have many more. However, I am more concerned with England and Wales, and with Leominster in particular. A Leominster post bus scheme was set up for North Herefordshire. However, we could not find a volunteer postman to run the post bus—and I do not blame anyone for that. It was not a question of any pressure as such on those men but it was, perhaps, a natural feeling that unless a postman is given incentives he is not very interested in becoming a busman as well. If I were him I should not be interested.

It is the duty of the Government and the Post Office to encourage men to do this by financial incentives. The men must be paid for the job. If they go out on their postman's round, they are obviously interested in finishing it and getting home, not hanging around and running a bus service. They would be willing to do it if they were paid for doing it.

In rural areas there is the "dial-a-ride scheme"—which in urban areas is called the "dial-a-bus scheme". The Transport and Road Research Laboratory sponsored an experiment in South Herefordshire. The experiment was abandoned due to lack of funds, but the facilities for such an experiment in Herefordshire as a whole were present.

I have put some suggestions to the Minister. In the time available I have tried to cover a reasonable spectrum and put the claims of my area. By way of summary I put three queries to the Minister. First, how far have the Government got in implementing these experimental schemes and when may we expect some sort of definitive statement about them? Secondly, can these experiments take the form of co-ordination of rural transport in the way that I have described, utilising some of my ideas? Thirdly, I stress again that Hereford-Worcester would be a worthwhile territory for such an experiment and that there would be co-operation by the in- dustries and people involved. It is the sort of area that has very good relations all round and that would benefit enormously from such an experiment. I press the area upon the Minister tonight as a suitable site.

3.20 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I must congratulate the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) on securing this debate and on the way in which he has so ably presented the problems facing his constituents. I congratulate him also on his staying power on being present at this hour to start the debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that his constituency covers an area of 600 square miles. Although my constituency has an area of six square miles, with particular problems of its own, from my experience in my office, I appreciate the acute problems in rural areas, particularly of those who have no car at their disposal. On Wednesday I spoke in the debate on railway services and answered questions on minibuses and a number of other points which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have noted.

The experiments that the hon. Gentleman mentions take two forms. There is first a series of experiments within existing laws, on which we have a steering committee which I hope will meet very shortly. After that we have a draft Bill which we hope the steering committee will examine after it has seen some of the experiments. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we need to consult the other operators and trade unions on this matter. As regards the Post Office, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Scots seem to have the edge on us in this matter. It is difficult for the Post Office to arrange a delivery route that is on the same route as that on which people wish to travel.

It is less than two months since I was thanking the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) for raising a discussion similar to that raised tonight. I have no wish merely to repeat points that I made then. I am sure that the hon. Member will appreciate that we have been conducting a wide-ranging review of public transport policy over the past few months. In the next few weeks, before the Easter Recess, we shall be issuing a consultative document on the fruits of the review, and the hon. Member will realise that I shall be strenuously avoiding any attempt tonight at any anticipation of what that document will have to say. The time for discussion of that document will come after it has been issued, and not before.

However, I should like to begin tonight with some basic statistics which will help us to place the situation in North Herefordshire in the context of national trends. The stark fact is that, between 1963 and 1973, passenger journeys by bus fell by two-thirds, while the number of cars on the road almost doubled. But very many people still remain dependent on public transport. In 1974 there were still 44 per cent. of households that did not have regular use of a car. Probably the percentage is less in Leominster than it is in Manchester, Gorton. Nevertheless, there are still a considerable number of people who do not have this possibility. I believe that there has been a pause recently in the growth of car ownership, but I think that it is a temporary pause and that the growth will later continue. Furthermore, it is the less well off sections of the community who do not have access to cars and are, therefore, dependent on buses, and on trains to a lesser extent.

It is hardly suprising, therefore, that 27 per cent. of all journeys to work, 25 per cent. of shopping trips and 42 per cent. of school trips are all made by the local bus. Buses therefore have and will have a key role to play in the life of the community for a long time to come.

It is for these reasons that, within the total funds available for transport, the present Government have given increasing priority to public transport. In 1970–71, 52 per cent. of transport expenditure went on road construction and 24 per cent. on public transport. This year the priorities have been reserved: we are now spending only 35 per cent. on building new roads, and 45 per cent. on public transport.

I now turn to North Herefordshire and the main NBC company in the area, the Midland Red company. In my speech last January I tried to indicate some of the ways in which NBC companies, and particularly Midland Red, were demonstrating their responsiveness to changing needs. The Norfolk community minibus experiment, in which another NBC subsidiary company is participating, is the kind of project which attracts a good deal of attention, and rightly so. But Midland Red has also been involved in changes which are less spectacular but which, nevertheless, go to meet local authority needs.

I mentioned in my earlier speech the important changes in routes, in service levels and in fare structures which Midland Red has been introducing for example in Kidderminster, in Worcester, in Redditch and in Stafford. All these measures have been welcomed by the local authorities concerned and it is right to remind ourselves of the degree of co-operation which exists between the Midland Red company and the local authorities in these cases.

I appreciate, of course, that measures such as these are applicable mainly to urban areas and therefore have little to offer North Herefordshire, which is deeply rural. The very small and widely scattered settlements in the North-West of the county present very different public transport problems. Conventional stage carriage services here form a pattern typical of such rural areas. Through-routes linking the larger centres of population are provided by Midland Red, with more local needs being met by small independents.

While central Government can set the framework, it is local government which has the executive arm and the clear responsibility to meet local needs through a proper evaluation of local requirements.

The Transport Act 1968 and various subsequent legislative measures, notably the 1972 and 1974 Local Government Acts, have established a system of public transport control which has as its central underlying philosophy the belief that local transport is a matter for local authorities. They are in the best position to assess and evaluate the transport needs of their own areas. This approach to transport planning has been evolved through both Labour and Conservative Administrations and is, of course, administered by local authorities of all political persuasions.

This legislation recognises that this philosophy of local responsibility is heavily dependent on authorities envolving a close co-operative relationship with bus operators. I understand that, despite inevitable areas of disagreement, this process of evolution is taking place in Hereford and Worcester. But I regret the slowness of the gestation period in some areas.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport spoke in this House in August last year and emphasised the responsibility which the county councils bore for public transport in their areas. He invited them to reconsider the estimates of expenditure on bus revenue support which they had submitted for Transport Supplementary Grant for 1976–77 and to submit revised estimates, bearing in mind that he had already made it clear that in the 1976–77 allocation clear priority would be given to proposals to maintain basic levels of service, especially in rural areas. My hon. Friend warned counties that, if they decided against supporting services, the assumption must be that the bus operator concerned would have no alternative but to withdraw them.

Hereford and Worcester chose not to accept the invitation and failed to bid for any more than about half of what the Midland Red Company required to maintain its existing levels of service. This is the second Adjournment debate within a few weeks about the public transport position in Hereford and Worcester and about the Midland Red Company. But no amount of talking here will put the resources in the bus company's hands which will allow it to go on running services whose costs cannot be covered out of fare-box revenue. The responsibility for making the necessary resources available falls fairly and squarely on the county council. If it is not willing to meet operators' losses on rural services, there is no alternative but for those services to be reduced or withdrawn entirely.

I know that the county council has considered that it should not contribute towards the Midland Red Company's depreciation and contingency provisions or towards servicing its capital. But these are costs which operating companies have to bear. In the case of NBC companies there are statutory obligations arising out of the legislation under which the NBC was established. Again, if these costs are not met either out of fare-box revenue or from local authorities' contributions, with support from the Government, the operator can have little alternative to cutting the local rural services about which the hon. Gentleman and I are so concerned.

In some circumstances, where conventional bus services no longer exist, the county council will need to consider other means of meeting the demand for public transport. Clearly, Leominster offers considerable scope for the judicious use of less conventional services, and the county recognises this. The hon. Member has mentioned the possibility of post bus services in the area, and the county council has actively pursued this idea. Such schemes must be as a result of very careful studies and discussions between all those concerned in order to assess how unconventional services might best help meet the needs of an area. I hope that such close co-operation might be developed throughout Hereford and Worcester. However, this is a matter for the county council to tackle.

The House is aware that my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport announced on 3rd December his plans for promoting experimental schemes in three or four selected areas in Great Britain where rural transport problems exist. These schemes will test on the ground what can be done within the present road service licensing code to help rural communities. The design of these schemes will be the responsibility of working groups which will be set up under the chairmanship of officials from the relevant Departments, with representatives from the local authorities, bus operators, unions and other bodies. The working groups will act under the general guidance of a steering committee embracing similar representation.

We also propose, when an opportunity occurs, to present a short Bill to provide for a modest relaxation of licensing for a limited period within the area of these schemes. But I must point out that we must carefully consider their effect on existing bus services, and the views of operators and trade unions.

I would stress two points about changes in licences. First, licensing is a wide-ranging concept, and the full implications of seemingly simple general changes are not always brought out as they should be. Secondly, the difficulties of securing licences—PSV and road service licences—may be exaggerated. The traffic commissioners will always be prepared to give a sympathetic hearing to any application intended to deal with a genuine need that is not otherwise being met. Indeed, the various experimental services which already exist provide evidence of the traffic commissioners' flexibility. But obviously they must operate within the terms of the statute.

The hon. Member referred to rail services, with particular reference to the Hereford—Worcester line. The withdrawal of any rail passenger service is governed by the statutory procedure laid down by the Transport Acts of 1962 and 1968. Under this procedure it is for the Railways Board to propose the closure of any line if in its commercial judgment the line is so uneconomic as to justify this. The interests of users of the service are protected, since the procedure gives them the right to object to the pro- posals, and in that event the consent of the Secretary of State is required. That consent is not given until the Secretary of State has been satisfied not only about the commercial case for closure but also about the probable effects of the closure on the social and economic well-being of the area.

No proposal of this kind has been made by the Railways Board for the withdrawal of the Hereford-Worcester service. But, of course, no Minister could ever give a guarantee that any rail service will remain in being for all time. That would prejudice the Secretary of State's jurisdiction in respect of any application by the Railways Board.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I look forward to hearing positive contributions from him and his hon. Friends in the debates when the transport policy review is published.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Four o'clock a.m.