HC Deb 28 May 1976 vol 912 cc820-39

1.26 p.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising on the Adjournment the subject of the transport problems of North-East Essex. My main object is to try to persuade the Minister that the way in which concessionary fares operate under the 1968 Transport Act is unfair, especially in the Tendring district, in my constituency, where there are 30,000 retired people out of a total of 107,000, where 15,000 householders draw rate rebate, and where the product of a penny rate totals £180,000. Under these conditions the local council has found it impossible to bring forward proposals for concessionary fares.

Alas, this is not the only problem facing transport users in North-East Essex. There is a grave problem facing railway commuters. I am sure there is a strong case for making travel to work a tax-allowable expense.

Before I go further into detail I wish to ask the Minister about the progress being made into the continuing story of the proposed development of Bathside Bay—a proposal vital to the proper development of the Haven ports and particularly to the railway port of Parkeston and the privately-owned port at Harwich Navy Yard.

We have recently heard a great deal about Felixstowe. The increase in trade on the Harwich side of the river has been equal to that of Felixstowe, and the amount of tonnage handled by Parkeston and Harwich has exceeded that of Felixstowe. Like all successful enterprises, the ports of Parkeston and Harwich Navy Yard both need room for expansion. This is especially so since, with Felixstowe, these ports have become the second largest port complex involved in the movement of goods and passengers.

Twice in the past two years application has been made to proceed with this vital development at Bathside, to cater for further expansion, particularly when we get through the present depression. Unfortunately, the scheme has twice been turned down, on the ground that the developers have not been able to get firm guarantees of user commitment. To many of us closely connected with trying to get permission for this scheme from the Government it seems that we have reached a situation of "Which came first—the chicken or the egg?" in these uncertain times it is difficult for any shipping company to give firm guarantees two or three years before development has taken place.

Surely, faith in the future must be shown, not only by these shipping companies but by the Government. In my view, even in the last application the shipping companies intending to use the facility went as far as they possibly could, given present conditions. It was a great disappointment to me and to many others that the Government did not show more faith and leadership in this investment project, especially as we are concerned with the second largest port complex in the country.

When I raised this matter during the debate on the British Transport Docks (Felixstowe) Bill the Minister referred to an element of user commitment. I was encouraged by his words. I hope that that means that when the next application comes in the new Minister will look upon it favourably. From the intelligence that I have, the developers may be able to get firmer guarantees on user commitment than they did on the last application. The trouble is that all this delay and procrastination costs money, especially in these inflationary times. A speedy decision for development is urgently required not only for the proper development of the port but because work on the Dovercourt bypass is being held up. I am sure that when the Minister visits Harwich he will realise at once how urgently the bypass is needed. Heavy lorries trundle through the town and other traffic through the main street of Dovercourt. That has gone on for a long time. Something must be done soon.

Apart from the Dovercourt bypass, the communications on our side of the Haven port complex have been improved considerably compared with 10 years ago. I should be grateful if, in his reply, the Minister could give some information about the progress being made in joining the A12 and the A604 and any other intended improvement to help communications with the Midlands.

I turn now to some of the other problems, particularly the grave situation facing the users of public transport in North-East Essex. It simply boils down to the fact that a great number of people cannot afford to use public transport. They are being priced out of travelling. There has been a disturbing fall-off in season ticket holders using the railways. Between 1970 and 1975 there has been a drop of 13 per cent. in revenue, totalling £9½ million, on buses controlled by the Eastern National Bus Company. That fall-off directly reflects on the employment figures in the area, as the cost of commuting to business and industrial areas is becoming prohibitive.

I am also concerned for school leavers who want to serve apprenticeships. They are finding it more expensive to use the railways. Indeed, there has been an 80 per cent. increase in rail fares since 1974. My constituents strongly resented the remarks recently made by a Minister, to the effect that commuters are rich. Certaintly the majority of commuters from North-East Essex are in the lower income group. They are having to find over £500 a year for second-class annual tickets from the coast to London. That means that they must earn over £1,000 a year gross to pay their travel bills alone. In 1964 the fare was one-fifth of what it is today. Indeed, many people moved to the coast from London tempted by the promise of cheap rail fares.

During the period of the Conservative Government, rail fares rose by 2 per cent. less than retail prices and by 12 per cent. less than average earnings. Now we have had an 80 per cent. increase in the last two years. How can the Government appeal to the country for restraint in wage claims and price increases when they control the industries, especially public transport, which are putting up charges?

After such increases, and bearing in mind the desperate situation now facing commuters, I am sure that travel to work must be made a tax allowable expense. I look forward to pressing the Government for action in that respect on the Report stage of the Finance Bill. Something must be done to help commuters.

Finally, I turn to the question of concessionary fares. With this all-time high in bus fares, we in Tendring get no concessionary fares at all. Maldon, which has the lowest product per penny rate in Essex, is the only other district in the county that is in the same position. The product of a penny rate in Maldon is £74,500, compared with £181,000 in Tend-ring. Unlike Maldon, Tendring has 30,000 retired people out of a total population of 107,000. If the local council were to grant such fares, the bill would be very high and would fall upon those who could least bear it, especially as the average wage in North-East Essex is so much below that for the rest of the country. Indeed, 15,000 people are drawing rate rebates. A considerable part of the bill would therefore fall on those least able to bear it—those most hit by inflation. That is why I suggest that the Government must stop hiding behind the 1968 Act and face reality, especially at this time of severe inflation.

Help should go to those who need it. But we are discovering that words and action mean two very different things. Help for concessionary fares is being given by the rich Socialist councils—for example, London, Manchester, Bradford and Leeds. London has a rateable value, per penny rate, of £19 million; the figure for Bradford is £856,000; for Manchester £763,000; and for Leeds £1,250,000. Poor Conservative areas like Maldon and Tendring, with the real problems of having to cater for the elderly—I have not mentioned the disabled, the blind and others—get no help from the Government. Indeed, the Government, through their policy on concessionary fares, are making second-class citizens of my constitutents.

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

I should point out that concessionary fares are entirely a matter for local authorities. Manchester and the other places mentioned by the hon. Gentleman do not get any help from the Government.

Mr. Ridsdale

If the hon. Gentleman will follow my argument, he will appreciate that I am asking the Government to stop hiding behind the iniquitous 1968 Act, which prevents help going to those who need it. If the Government follow my suggestion, they will be able to save a considerable amount of public money.

At present, holidaymakers from concessionary fares areas can use their concessions in North-East Essex, but my constituents have to pay the full fares. That is why they feel that they are second-class citizens. The Minister may frown. I wish that he would travel on some of the buses in my constituency. If he did, he would see the real anger that is being created by the unfair operation of the 1968 Act. I am sure that the Minister understands the resentment that it has brought, even to richer parts of Essex which are able to operate concessionary fares because they do not have the same problems as Tendring and Maldon. Other areas, not nearly as large as ours, are not as hard hit as we are by fare increases. For example, since 1970 the fare between Brightlingsea and Colchester has risen by 166 per cent. In 1970 the fare was 18p; in 1974 it was 29p; now it is 48p. Similar fare increases have taken place throughout the rest of North-East Essex.

In Essex the large increase—for example, in rail fares—has taken place since 1974. That is due not so much to the increase in oil prices as to the increase in wages. Since 1970 fares have risen by 166 per cent. and wages by 140 per cent. I hope that those who are responsible for pressing inflationary wage

demands will take note that such action has caused unemployment and real hardship to pensioners.

Unlike those in Socialist areas operating concessionary fares. many of my constituents have to pinch and save to travel even once weekly. Worse still, they cannot afford the bus fare to collect their pensions, and the Government do not have the money to move sub-post offices so that pensioners do not have to travel on the buses.

I am nevertheless sure that a solution can be found to this problem. In my view, the Government have to stop hiding behind the 1968 Act. They should deal with the problem nationally and take account of areas such as mine, with 30,000 retired people out of a population of 107,000. If the Government were to do that and give help to those who really need it, there would be a saving in Government expenditure. Concessionary fares, which cost the Exchequer £9.5 million in 1970–71, are now costing nearly £50 million, and that is a direct contribution towards the rate support grant.

Mr. Marks

The Government make no contribution towards concessionary fares. The expenditure mentioned by the hon. Gentleman is the direct expenditure of local authorities, through their rates.

Mr. Ridsdale

If it is direct expenditure through local authority rates, according to the public expenditure White Paper, which I am sure the Minister has read, it is costing £50 million. I still feel that if help were given to those who need it, rather than the matter being dealt with by the rich Socialist boroughs handing out largesse, economies could be made.

If, at the same time as looking at concessionary fares in the way that I have suggested, the bus companies and other commercial users were to do what the railways are doing and offer half-price travel at non-peak periods for senior citizens and the disabled, it might help those who most need it in the crisis situation in which we find ourselves. Nobody can dispute that the elderly, the disabled and people in similar categories are being hit extremely hard by the present situation.

Something new has to be done. I hope that the Minister will not complacently hide behind the 1968 Act but will assure us that he will consider carefully the proposals that I have made. I hope he will not say that councils such as Maldon and Tendring can afford to pay these fares, bearing in mind that in my area there are 30,000 retired people and 15,000 who receive rate rebates.

I shall be interested to hear what solutions the Minister has to offer for some of these poor areas, because of the metropolitan district councils there are now 63 in a similar situation to Tendring and Maldon. The Government and those who think about this problem must do their best to find a correct solution to it.

1.43 p.m.

Mr. Tony Newton (Braintree)

I am told that the Minister feels that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) has packed so much meat into his speech that he will require 25 minutes in which to reply. I shall therefore endeavour to be correspondingly brief.

First, it is a great pleasure to have this opportunity to support what was said by my hon. Friend, because I was born and brought up in his constituency and my parents still live there. They are retired and I frequently visit them, and I therefore know something of the problems of the area. I know how much my hon. Friend has done over many years to help and support the interests of retired people. He has supported me on many occasions in proposing amendments to the Finance Bill to that end.

I propose to follow some of the points raised by my hon. Friend, and I shall deal first with the matter of concessionary fares. My hon. Friend emphasised the financial aspects of the problem and the difficulty that arises for councils that have a relatively low yield from the rates and a relatively high—in my hon. Friend's case exceptionally high—number of retired people. That is one important factor.

A second and increasingly powerful argument for a national approach to concessionary fares is the sheer nonsense of what often arises because of the differences in schemes in adjoining areas. Maldon, which does not come into my constituency but borders on it, does not have a concessionary fares scheme, but Braintree District Council does have such a scheme—though it has been through some difficulties—and Chelmsford district, part of which is covered by my constituency, has yet another scheme. The boundaries between those areas mean little to many retired people, in terms of where they shop. It produces an irritating and even anger-creating situation amongst retired people when they find that the treatment meted out to them differs so much over relatively short geographical distances.

Thirdly, there is the difficulty that often arises because of the many variations in individual schemes. In Braintree, until just over a year ago the council was operating its own scheme, based on paper vouchers. The scheme was working satisfactorily for retired people but it gave rise to many administrative difficulties for people in the bus company, and in the end they refused to accept the vouchers.

A confused situation arose, in which vouchers were usable on vehicles operated by private bus companies in some parts of the area but not on vehicles operated by the Eastern National Omnibus Company Limited—part of the National Bus Company. In part of the area the vouchers were usable on taxis, but not on the buses, and a ridiculous situation resulted. This year, within a matter of a week or two, the matter will be sorted out, after great efforts by myself and people on the district council and the bus company, with the introduction of tokens. They will be acceptable on Eastern National buses, and I hope that that will solve that aspect of the problem.

That is a good illustration of the difficulties that arise when there is a great variety of schemes and the matter is left to be dealt with by the district councils. I am increasingly persuaded to the view that some kind of national standard ought to be laid down, if necessary with financial equalisation help, as my hon. Friend suggested, so that we have a situation that is more acceptable to retired people than is the present one.

I accept that present financial constraints rule out what I should like to see, which is a national half-fare pass scheme, possibly to operate outside peak hours. I do not say that we can do that this year or next, because I appreciate the financial problems, but the Government ought to be thinking about a national scheme properly and fairly financed along those lines.

I also support what was said by my hon. Friend about commuters. There are fewer retired people in my constituency than there are in my hon. Friend's, but I have a larger number of commuters than he has, because my constituency is considerably closer to London. Many of these commuters are young married people, who have been encouraged by Government policy and by general planning policy over many years to move out of London and buy their homes. They have done that as part of the policy to reduce congestion in London, but they have continued to work in London, and now they are finding themselves clobbered out of sight by what is happening to them on both parts of the equation. They moved out to buy new houses, on mortgages, with official encouragement, but their mortgage repayments are infinitely higher than they expected them to be, and at the same time they are having to cope with the most fantastic increases in commuter fares.

I do not think that the problem that arises should be underestimated. It cannot be dismissed as a problem relating only to those who are relatively well off. Only last week I received a letter from a constituent who had earlier complained to me about the fare increases, saying that he had been forced into a decision to move to another part of the country. He has asked for a transfer in his job because he cannot stand the costs with which he now finds himself burdened.

I do not believe that my constituents, much though they object to the fare increases imposed upon them, want to be permanently subsidised. They want to be convinced that they are being treated fairly. At the moment they are not.

There are two reasons for this. First, as the Government's transport survey indicates, the level of efficiency on our railway system is still far lower than in most other railway systems in Europe. My constituents want to be convinced that everything is being done to reduce the cost of the railways before fares are put up. Many feel that the recent announcement that fares are to be frozen for the rest of this year should have been made a long time ago and, if anything, before the latest round of fare increases.

The second point on fairness is that it is clear from the Government's consultation document that rail freight is paying only its avoidable track costs, which means that it is being subsidised. This could easily lead me into the whole argument about freight transport both by road and rail, but I shall refrain, because time is short. What is certain is that the question of rail freight charges needs to be looked at carefully if I am to be able to persuade my constituents that as commuters they are being fairly treated. Rail freight ought to be paying its full and proper share of rail costs.

I am grateful for this brief opportunity to raise these points, and I look forward to the Minister's reply.

1.52 p.m.

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

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) for bringing transport matters to our attention once more and for giving me another opportunity to debate transport policy. I came into office at the beginning of December last year and I have taken part in 18 debates of this kind.

The hon. Member raised a number of points. I would have liked more time to calculate just what they mean in terms of public expenditure. One of the problems in this House is that hon. Members opposite make demands for immediate cuts in public expenditure and then send me many letters asking that the Government give more support to concessionary fares and to commuters. We just cannot do that. It has been suggested that we are hiding behind the 1968 Act, but we are doing nothing of the kind. Because we are not satisfied with the 1968 Act, we have brought forward our consultation document on transport policy review, which deals with many of the points raised in the debate.

Among the points raised was that areas with low rateable values and a great number of old people are worse off. But they receive larger Government grants because of that. The hon. Gentleman compares his area with cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, which help their old people much more than do rural authorities. He will find, despite the recent large increases, that the rates in his area are still much less than those in the great cities.

I am convinced that the Government are right to move towards a properly integrated transport system and to do it through a policy of consultation. Nevertheless, I welcome every opportunity to talk on this subject in the House. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me know in advance some of the points he intended to raise.

As well as raising these points, however, he tried to take a broad view. What he has said about his own area of Essex applies to many other parts of the country. I hope that hon. Members, as well as all the organisations involved in transport—the various local authority associations, transport undertakings and individuals—will be more specific when calling for more spending in their own local areas.

As to concessionary fares, I have written to the hon. Gentleman, and to about 550 other hon. Members recently, but this was about his district council in Tendring where the local council offers no concessionary travel arrangements for elderly and disabled people. These are entirely at the discretion of the local authorities. I can see the difficulty which Tendring faces in common with a number of other seaside areas which have a large number of elderly and retired people. The figure I have is 35 per cent. of residents. Any concessionary fare scheme would, therefore, be extremely expensive for the council to finance.

I understand that the council has this under active consideration. Perhaps it will bear in mind that there is a tremendous level of support given by local authorities, particularly in the West Mid-lands and Tyne and Wear, which have very fine systems of concessionary fares, whereas others do nothing.

All councils are faced with the difficult decision over expenditure and only yesterday we issued a circular to local authorities asking them to restrict their spending to the figure we agreed on last December. We regard this as a highly important matter because there is a danger of overspending beyond what we estimated when the rate support grant negotiations were held.

The consultation document acknowledges that this form of subsidy to well defined groups is a justified use of public resources. But there are very wide differences in the schemes available, and the danger is that not all the schemes are giving value for money. Within the constraints on public expenditure there is an urgent need to get the maximum social benefit from resources expended.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the money will go to those most in need. We have to consider the subsidies given to commuters whether they are poor or rich. A question of this matter is specifically included in the consultation document and we shall carefully study reactions to it. I would point out that at the end of every chapter in the document we have put a series of questions asking people how they would tackle this problem. I hope that people will be detailed in their replies.

There are important implications which the House will have to consider seriously. The first is the freedom of local authorities to take their own decisions in these matters. Some of the authorities which have been mentioned do far more than we can reasonably expect to help their old people. We have to examine how far the rights of local authorities, and their freedom, should be made subservient to a national policy. It is a difficult matter.

Mr. Ridsdale

Is it not for the reason that some of them are rather extravagant that the rates in the cities are higher than in other areas?

Mr. Marks

That is a matter for the judgment of the local authorities. They believe that disabled, old and blind people should have free travel. They have the backing of the ratepayers and the ratepayers pay the money. That is precisely where the concessionary fare situation stands at the moment. Almost inevitably, in moving towards standardisation, it will be difficult to persuade those authorities with good schemes to reduce them at this stage.

The hon. Member spoke of the Colchester Eastern bypass. As he is aware, proposals for the Colchester Eastern and Elmstead Market bypasses were published in draft in July 1975 and considered before an independent inspector at a public inquiry in January.

The new road would act as a bypass of both Ardleigh and Great Bromley and would remove from these villages a great deal of traffic which goes through them at present to the East coast. The bypass, a proposed dual two-lane road, would pass about 800 to 1,000 metres south of the centre of Great Bromley but between Great Bromley and Hare Green. The latter is a small community, which objectors argued strongly formed part of the village of Great Bromley. Near Hare Green the bypass would be in deep cutting. Hare Green is also the site of a two-level interchange enabling traffic to and from Clacton to leave and join the new bypass.

Objectors at the public inquiry put forward alternative routes, two of which concerned this immediate locality. One of these would move the bypass south of Hare Green and obviate the alleged severance of the two communities. The other would move the interchange further eastward away from Hare Green.

We still await the inspector's report. The hon. Member will, I hope, appreciate that all I can say at this stage is that my right hon. Friend will announce his decision in due course, after considering all objections, the report and the alternative recommendations of the inspector.

I should like to turn to the port of Harwich, to which the hon. Member referred in a recent debate on Felixstowe docks. As the House knows, Harwich is one of several ports throughout the country owned and operated by the British Railways Board. Parliament has given the Railways Board the job of running its ports on a commercial basis, and it must be left to the Railways Board in the first instance to identify ways in which its business should properly develop.

It is, of course, firm Government policy to transfer freight from road to rail where-ever this makes economic, social or environmental sense. Within this requirement, it is the aim of the Railways Board to secure additional traffic whenever this can be justified on commercial grounds. This obviously imposes some constraints, but I know that the Board is anxious to lose no opportunity of increasing its share of the traffic going to and from the port.

So far as new investment is concerned, the Railways Board has recently carried out some minor work at Parkeston Quay, in order to cope with the welcome extra traffic. Further investment will depend not only on the board's own plans for developing its shipping services but also on the development of trade at the port in general.

I turn to proposals by the Earlpar Development Company to reclaim and develop port facilities at Bathside Bay. I am aware of the hon. Member's continuing interest in this project—he keeps on making me aware of it—and that he has raised this matter on a number of occasions in the House.

I do not propose to dwell on the earlier history of these proposals. It is common ground that Bathside Bay is physically well suited for port development. As the hon. Member knows, however, the promoters need to obtain my right hon. Friend's authorisation under Section 9 of the Harbours Act 1964. The difficulty hitherto has been the inability of Earlpar to demonstrate firm evidence of demand for the project, and I know how difficult that is.

Where there is a problem of surplus capacity in the ports industry as a whole, my Department and the National Ports Council, whose advice has to be obtained under the Act, must be fully satisfied that the project meets the normal criteria in regard to evidence of need for additional port facilities and viability of the project.

I understand that Earlpar has been having informal discussions with the National Ports Council over recent months on the basis of a scheme which would involve reclamation and the provision of a roll-on/roll-off berth for a prospective customer. I am informed that Earlpar is currently negotiating with the customer and the British Railways Board for a lease of the land in question which is owned by the board. If these negotiations are successful and if the terms of any agreement reached with Earlpar involve the necessary degree of commitment by the customer, it will then be up to Earlpar to decide whether to submit a further formal application for authorisation. I must emphasise that at this moment there is no such application before my right hon. Friend, but I repeat the assurance which has been given on several occasions that the Department and the National Ports Council are prepared to give careful consideration to any application when it is submitted.

The hon. Member spoke also of the Dovercourt bypass. This is a scheme the history of which is linked with the Bath-side scheme, so that decisions made about the one inevitably affect decisions on the other.

The Department has long recognised the need to improve the important route carrying international traffic to and from Parkeston and Harwich. Substantial improvement has already been achieved. The length from Elmstead Market to west of Ramsey has been brought up to a standard appropriate to the nature and volume of the traffic it has to carry, and, in anticipation of the route's eventual trunk road status, the scheme was financed wholly from central government funds.

Stage 1 of the Dovercourt bypass will be similarly financed, quite separately from the grant aid available to Essex County Council in the form of transport supplementary grant. The associated complusory purchase order was recently the subject of a public local inquiry and further progress must depend on the out-come. If it is favourable, I believe that the county council plan to start work next January and to have the new road open two years later.

Stage 2 of the bypass is a scheme for the county council to promote within the framework of its transport policies and programmes, with central government aid provided through the transport supplementary grant system. Had the Bathside development project gone ahead, it would no doubt have incorporated a road layout of which part could have formed a section of this stage 2 bypass.

Without the Bathside project, however, stage 2 must compete equally with other schemes for a place in the county council's highways programme, and so far it does not appear to have qualified for inclusion. In that respect it must be borne in mind that the Department has advised local authorities, in a circular on transport supplementary grant submissions for 1977–78, that the reduced amounts available for investment in road building will inevitably bear on the scope for injecting new schemes into their programmes.

They were, therefore, asked to ensure that in starting new projects they would not be creating future commitments which would be difficult for them to honour in the coming years. It was suggested that, among schemes commanding strong support on grounds of need and urgency, councils might wish to increase the emphasis on smaller projects with speedier returns and lesser implications for expenditure in the years ahead. Clearly, Essex County Council has to consider the priority of stage 2 of the bypass in relation to the other pressing calls on their resources.

I come to rail fares and support. The question of establishing priorities between different calls on resources is just as difficult with regard to current expenditure and in particular concerning subsidies to bus and rail services.

The subject of rail passenger services and rail fares in London and the South-East has been thoroughly aired in previous debates. We had an Adjournment debate on the subject of railway fares on 2nd March and a Supply Day debate on British Rail's commuter services on 17th March. The problems of rail travellers were also raised on 13th April when the Secretary of State made his statement on transport policy, and the topic was discussed very fully in another place as recently as last week. My colleagues and I have, moreover, frequently answered questions on this subject during Question Time. I do not, therefore, intend to take up valuable time by repeating what has been said on these occasions.

There are, however, two general points that I must make. The first is on the misconception which has gained currency that the Government believe that all rail travellers are rich. Of course, we know that this is not so. The better-off half of the social spectrum makes more use of the railways than the poorer half, and so stand to gain most from rail subsidies. But we fully recognise this still leaves many travellers from the lower income groups who depend upon public transport, especially if they do not own cars. We recognise also that many commuters feel that where they work and where they live leaves them no alternative but to travel by rail, and they feel themselves trapped.

One of the arguments put forward in the demand for increased London allowances by civil servants and teachers—this also applies to a great extent in private industry—is that if they do not live in London but have to work in London they spend a lot of money in travelling. In many cases, London allowances exceed the amount that is spent on travel into London, but I appreciate that the cost of commuting is a major expense for many families. Never the less, it must be remembered that the railways are already receiving a very substantial public subsidy.

Central and local government support for the railway system last year was in excess of £500 million. The Government paid about £300 million of this to support passenger services. This year we expect to pay about £312 million. When I say "the Government", I mean the tax-payers, both those who ride on the railways and those who never ride on the railways from one year to another. If the hon. Member for Harwich is suggesting that we increase our support for rail fares, perhaps he would also like to suggest which other programmes of expenditure we should cut, or where the additional burden of taxation should fall—because the fact remains that it would be impossible to provide more money for the railways unless we provided less for other vital programmes or increased public expenditure and increased taxation.

The second misconception is that the proposals in the recently published transport consultation document will inevitably mean massive increases in rail fares. As hon. Members know, British Rail have announced that they intend to freeze rail fares for the rest of the year. The board is now reviewing its prospects before deciding upon the level of future adjustments. Fares certainly cannot be frozen indefinitely. The size of future increases will depend, however, upon the savings which can be made through greater efficiency and productivity, and the matching of the services to the demand. The greater the contribution of those factors, the less need there will be for fares increases.

Despite recent fares increases, the cost of rail travel still compares favourably, mile for mile, with the cost of motoring or even, for many journeys, the cost of bus travel. The commuter travelling from Clacton to London every day with a monthly season ticket pays substantially less than 2p per mile. The housewife travelling into Colchester or Harwich with an off-peak return pays only about 2½p per mile. The subsidy for this is about 2p per mile from the taxpayer. British Rail are, moreover, constantly improving and modernising services wherever this is justified by the demand for rail travel. This year, for example, the line between Witham and Braintree is being electrified, making services faster and more reliable.

The hon. Member has also mentioned bus fares. The stage carriage bus service is the most basic form of widely applicable public transport in many areas, and still has a very important part to play. The decline of the bus over recent years is, therefore, cause for real concern. In the 20 years following 1950, when car ownership was increasing six-fold, the number of passenger journeys by bus almost halved.

The effect of this trend on the economics of bus operation has been very serious, particularly in rural areas, where long distances and sparse populations create problems enough. In recent times, of course, rapid inflation has added yet another difficulty. Bus costs have increased more rapidly than the general level of inflation.

With costs spiralling upwards, and more and more travellers choosing the convenience of their cars, operators have only three alternatives. They can either put the cost on the passenger by putting up fares; or they can attract support from the local authorities—some local authorities give substantial support and others do not; or they can reduce services where cost increases have wiped out whatever possibility of covering costs there once was. No other alternatives are open to the operator. He must get extra income from somewhere or he must cut his costs on services.

Decisions on these matters must be essentially local decisions, based on local circumstances and transport needs. This is why the Local Government Act 1972 gave a new rôle to county councils—that of ensuring the provision of a co-ordinated and efficient public transport system in their local area. In effect, this means making decisions about the right combination of fares, subsidies and service economies, in close collaboration with the operators themselves, who not only have to implement the counties' policies, but are in the best position to provide counties with the detailed information they need to formulate these policies.

The Government's view is that we should allocate the limited resources available for bus subsidies to maintaining basic levels of bus service for those without cars, or without access to cars. By that I mean the wives and children of the owners of cars. We believe that general subsidies towards keeping fares down is a less efficient way of using the funds available. We have, therefore, aimed to direct these subsidies towards services, mainly in rural and semi-rural areas, which even then cannot be self-supporting.

With this objective my hon. Friend accepted for grant purposes for 1976–77 virtually the whole of the non-metropolitan counties' estimates for bus support. Indeed, we went even further and said that we would give even more support, and we did so in many cases. Essex County Council's estimate was accepted in full and it received grant in full. That estimate was, no doubt, based on the county's own judgment of the right balance between fares, service cuts, and subsidy from the rates, and it is for the the county council to consider how best to allocate the money available.

Clearly, realism dictates that fares increases will need to follow increases in costs. We are all very concerned about the difficulty that this will inevitably cause for some. This is only one of the areas in which we are having to take very difficult decisions about priorities. If more resources were to be allocated to bus support, expenditure on other important national programmes would have to be reduced. Our consultation document sets out the position quite clearly when it says that any increase in the sums provided for bus subsidy could be achieved only by making unwelcome reductions in road expenditure, for instance, and in other areas of transport expenditure.

It is in relating together all the various aspects of transport which we have discussed today that we shall move towards the integrated transport policy which we all seek. I look forward to further debates in this House—and I have no doubt that I shall get them—which will help to inform the public of the issues which have to be taken into account in working towards this policy—because, of course, something of which we often lose sight is that transport is not essentially about cars and lorries, trains and buses, but about moving people and goods efficiently and cost-effectively.