HC Deb 12 April 1978 vol 947 cc1541-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Tinn.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. John Ellis () Brigg and Scunthorpe

I am glad of the opportunity to raise the subject of declining services in rural areas. Particularly since the war, because of the change to a more efficient agriculture, the number of people living in rural areas has declined and many of those who remain have bought cars—people who never had them before. The decline in the rural area has had a great effect. It has meant that bus and other transport services, many of which were on the brink of viability, have become uneconomic. Services have been cut and the price paid for them has increased. Those on low incomes—common in rural areas—as well as pensioners have been particularly hard-hit.

Successive Ministers of Transport, especially the present Secretary of State, have sought to counterbalance this trend with transport subsidies to shire counties like Humberside, through the rate support grant. However, we have then seen the unfortunate spectacle of that money not being spent in the way intended.

This has happened so much that the Secretary of State recently announced that in deciding whether to give further transport supplementary grants he would review the performances of the shire counties. My own county of Humberside has been singularly lacking in this respect.

It is particularly grievous when councils claim at election time that they will cut the rates but do not dwell on the consequent cuts in services. This has happened in my area, where services have been cut tremendously. It is galling for a Labour Government who have a different policy that money intended for specific purposes should be used to keep down the rates.

The diminution of bus services means that when people have to take work in larger towns they often have many travelling difficulties.

Rural areas traditionally have Tory authorities, which are not lavish with concessionary fares. This is true in my area. Scunthorpe gives more concessionary fares than the neighbouring rural areas. This shows the different policies of the two major parties. But concessionary fares are no consolation if there is no bus service at all.

As I said, the traditional populations of villages have declined, and although some people have moved in, they have often had cars.

There has also been a change in shopping habits, with the introduction of supermarkets, and so on. The closure of village shops and sub-post offices is happening not only in my constituency but throughout the country, for the reasons that I have stated.

The Post Office was very good in giving me the details. Between 1st October 1976 and 30th September 1977 there were 186 closures by the Post Office after vacancy reviews. Of these, 81 were in towns and 145 were rural sub-offices. Eighty were closed because no one applied or because the applicant was not suitable. Of these, 11 were in towns and 69 in country areas.

Here we have a new policy—for reasons, I take it, of economy. When a person gives up a sub-post office because of retirement or for any other reason, the Post Office holds a review. I understand that its present policy in rural areas is that if there is another sub-post office within two miles, it is not likely to carry on with the sub-post office concerned.

There is also the problem that in many cases there are no takers when somebody gives up a sub-post office. I gather that this happens in the majority of cases. I had a difficult case in my constituency, where the person retiring advertised and found someone to buy the business. The Post Office's method is to advertise and to take the best of the suitable applicants. In this case, the Post Office did not select the one to whom the retiring person wished to sell. The result is that someone who has given a great deal of service is now in a difficult position in trying to get rid of the business.

There are also the cases where the Post Office authorities, for policy reasons, decide no longer to have a sub-post office in a particular area, as a result of a review. There are real human factors involved. The Post Office ought to consider these cases where people have given dedicated and selfless service over the years.

I disagree with the figures that the Post Office has given me for my own constituency, and I have looked back through my files. Indeed, problems of this sort led me to the conclusion that I should seek to raise the subject for debate. I find that since 1974 the following sub-post offices have shut in my constituency alone: Roxby, Flixborough, East Butter-wick, Appleby, Saxby-All-Saints and Horkstow.

In most cases there were no applications when a sub-post office was given up. When the sub-post office at Saxby-All-Saints was given up there was no one willing to take it at the time, but since then someone has been found who is willing to take it on. But now the Post Office will not agree to it, on the policy that the people can get to another village where there is a post office. But, because of bus fares going up and the infrequency of the services, old-age pensioners either find it inconvenient or they have to spend a lot of money out of their pensions in order to get to another village and back.

I know that there are sometimes alternative arrangements, but old people are proud. They live in closely knit communities in country areas and do not always want neighbours to collect their pensions for them or to know about their business.

There are other policies which are affecting rural areas. There is the sort of policy that is a result of the tidy mind and the economy of scale. Increasingly the attitude is one of looking at the development pattern and deciding that one village can develop while another must stay as it is. There are, therefore, other agencies which are concerned in these matters. Sometimes it is a matter of fitting in a new sewerage scheme, for example, and the authorities are loth to make the necessary changes because, on the development plan, the village is not one in which it is planned to build or expand.

There have been cases where, because of the drift of population, and changes in this respect, schools have closed. In some areas small hospitals have closed. This has all been done on the basis of economy of scale.

I can think of a dramatic way in which this has been brought to my attention. People in one of my villages, I think it is Broughton, are complaining because the village is not as clean and tidy as it used to be. Someone in the county council with a tidy mind has dreamt up a scheme and said "This is the modern age. We must now make use of all the hedge cutting machinery that we possess". Instead of having a village lengthman who looks after one or two villages, we now have mobile gangs. From time to time—perhaps three times a year—a gang descends on the village with hedge-cutting machinery and grass mowers and litters the place with grass cuttings. It then departs, never to be seen again.

In the old days the village lengthman often played an integral part in the life of the community. He knew that autumn does not happen at the same time every year. When the leaves fell he knew which drains he had to unblock. When the snow came he knew where he was in difficulties. If there were any difficulties in the village—some mishap, or something that needed to be attended to—he was the man who was the key link with the county council. He is no longer. In a way, that demonstrates how the economy of scale—the idea that one can tidy everything up by big units—completely misses the point, particularly in rural areas.

I want to say another word about my own area. Transport is often the key to these problems. At present the Humber bridge is being built. It is not due to open until next year. I am very critical of Sealink, because it was supposed to have a great deal of debate and public discussion before any decisions were taken. I would have thought there was a case that should be examined on the question whether we still ought to have a passenger service in addition to the bridge. This is a developing area on my side of the river.

Mr. Kevin McNamara () Kingston upon Hull, Central

Both sides of the river.

Mr. Ellis

I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) has joined me. Perhaps there will be job opportunities on my side of the river of which his constituents will want to take advantage. I believe that there is a case for having something like a hover service, which may not need the quays and the facilities which at present exist. But beyond this, I notice that someone has had the bright idea of running an express bus from Grimsby. It is easy to say that, but the rural network of buses often winds between particular villages. If one goes directly one may go through two of the bigger villages, but in that way we ruin the bus service or create consternation about what is a delicately balanced operation.

Similarly, in my village—New Holland, where the ferry starts—we shall have to look at the transport needs in the light of the new situation. I expect the county council to be initiating a debate on what ought to happen in the new circumstances. Organisations such as Sealink should desist from making any statement.

It appears to me that what Sealink has decided—I know that its big operations are cross-Channel—is that this is a little ferry which it wants to get rid of at the first available opportunity in order to get its hands on the compensation that will come with the building of the Humber bridge. It has run the service into the ground through lack of maintenance. There used to be three ferries, one acting as back-up.

Sealink took one boat away and ran the other two boats as hard as it could. The "Lincoln Castle" now needs extensive repairs, and we are left with a one-boat service. I have written to my hon. Friend about this matter, but I would say to him that this is not good enough and I hope that he will use some muscle on British Railways in order to change the situation.

Mr. McNamara

My hon. Friend who will reply to the debate should bear in mind that this is not just a south bank issue. In fact, on the north bank a great number of people use this ferry service. The fact that we now have only one ferry being worked into the ground—I am not sure whether that phrase is apt at the moment—can create a great deal of disturbance, not only on the south bank but to a great number of people on the north bank who go to the south bank seeking employment.

Mr. Ellis

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He adds to the point that I have already made.

I should like to offer one suggestion which I think could help. I do not want to set up a big bureaucracy, but perhaps someone at county council or district council level could look at all the problems that we are facing in the rural areas. For example, I know that the county council in my area is cutting services as fast as it can. But where there is a service, such as a mobile library, there is no reason why we cannot consider the possibility of an official giving out pensions off the same bus as it goes around or perhaps collecting prescriptions so that they may be dispensed. This is an easy suggestion, and it is possible that it would not work, but I think that we should have somebody looking at the combined social services and the problems that exist in specific areas.

I was pleased to see that we had a most important debate on this matter at the last Labour Party conference and that the national executive set up working parties to consider this kind of problem. I wish them every success.

It is said that we on the Government side of the House have no interest in rural areas. That is not so. I know that the present Government are looking at many of these issues, and quite frankly we are not being helped by some of the shire counties. I hope that they will reform their ways and that they will make available and use money given by the Government and that we, for our part, will do a great deal of research. This may encourage other people to look at the manifest problems caused by the changing life style and pattern in our rural areas, and do something for these people who, in this modern day and age, find themselves faced with diminishing services.

I hope that the Minister will draw the attention of the Post Office to the question of post offices in village stores, which is very serious in many areas. This problem is gaining momentum and manifesting itself in rural areas in my constituency and elsewhere.

10.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) has succeeded in bringing this subject to the attention of the House. The question of declining services in rural areas is very important. The Government fully recognise the importance of the range of problems upon which he has touched, albeit briefly, this evening.

In addition my hon. Friend will be aware that the Labour Party, following the conference at the end of last year, has set up a national executive committee working party on the problems of rural areas. My hon. Friend serves on the Standing Committee on the Transport Bill which reached its 20th sitting yesterday and therefore he as much as anyone in the House is playing a part in bringing hope to those who face this problem of declining services in rural areas.

I welcome the opportunity to mention Humberside in particular and I was glad to hear the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), who is a member of that shire county where the problems are especially acute.

In the time available I shall concentrate on transport, although the problems of rural transport are typical of many other services in country areas such as welfare, housing, schools, post offices and other aspects which my hon. Friend developed.

Certainly, we all know the hardship particularly for older people and poorer people who live in rural areas. The Government have taken positive steps to help local authorities to do more for such people. In transport the White Paper marked a major shift of emphasis to the country areas with a package of measures designed to meet the needs of people living there.

We have provided the finance by an increase of £15 million in the annual provision for revenue support for bus services in country areas. This is more than half as much again as counties are spending on rural services now, and it is enough to maintain the present network at broadly its present size without the need for fares increases much above the rate of inflation.

Only by maintaining adequate public transport in country areas can we help those who depend on buses to get to work to do their shopping or for social journeys. Without proper transport these people, particularly the lame or the poor, are cut off from the opportunities open to those who live in the major conurbations where journeys are shorter and public transport more readily available.

In addition, the Transport Bill requires shire counties to prepare and publish public transport plans and to enter into three-year agreements with operators to underwrite essential bus services. I know that my hon. Friend knows all about this, because he has played his part on the Standing Committee of that Bill to bring this compassionate idea into operation.

These plans will be prepared in consultation with transport operators, district councils, trade unions, transport users and others concerned with public transport. County councils are already in a position to assess needs and provide the resources for necessary services which cannot pay their way. Preparation and publication of plans will underline the importance of public transport and will make it easier for people to know what are the county council's policies and plans for maintaining the public services.

Our Transport Bill also contains provisions for community buses and social car schemes which would help in this connection. Their development will continue to be controlled by the traffic commissioners who will see that new schemes complement and do not damage the existing network of services. Our programme of 16 rural transport experiments is also examining other new forms of transport, such as post buses and shared hire car schemes. The programme is now well under way with nine of the experiments started and with three more planned to start by the end of the month. The experiments will provide the basis for valuable do-it-yourself guidance to local communities which we hope to publish later this year.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the problems faced by pensioners. Pensioners in country areas are especially hard hit by the rise in fares. We are determined to do more for them. We are increasing the local authority provision for concessionary fares by £25 million over the next two years. This should enable them to introduce half-fare schemes for all pensioners, and this will go a long way towards reducing the isolation which pensioners increasingly face in the rural areas.

A survey in 1976 conducted by the Department showed that 56 districts have no concessionary fare scheme at all. All of them are either Conservative controlled or Independent-controlled. None is Labour-controlled.

In the case of Humberside all districts in the area, with the exception of Beverley, provide some form of travel concession for the elderly, blind and disabled, but apart from Hull, which provides a generous scheme, few of the other district schemes reach the level recommended in the circular which we have just issued. Clearly, there is scope for improvement on this point in Humberside county. I hope that that opportunity will be grasped in the near future.

If I may summarise what we are doing for transport outside the metropolitan areas, we are making available resources on an unprecedented scale to give people access to a wider social life and better employment opportunities. But there are Conservative counties which have spurned our money. Humberside is one of them. It has cut back its revenue support from £944,000 last year to £645,000 this year. As my hon. Friends appreciate, control of Humberside County Council changed from Labour to Conservative last year.

Mr. McNamara

Is my hon. Friend aware that, because of arrangements made under the Tories when they reorganised local government, we are facing a situation in which the Hull District Council suffers Particularly because of the attitude of the Humberside County Council?

Mr. Horam

Yes, I am very well aware of that point, and I am glad that my hon. Friend has sought to bring it out. I also wish to point out that Humberside is giving local bus operators only 45 per cent. of what they have asked for to keep services going. The result is expected to be a cut of 65,000 bus miles. Furthermore, neighbouring Lincolnshire, which is near to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe, has a figure of only 29 per cent. In other words, the county council has given only 29 per cent. of what bus operators ask for.

Humberside is not alone. Since the Conservatives have gained control in Northamptonshire, we expect that a million miles will be cut out because the county has given local operators only a third of what they asked for. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central has pointed out, the problems are particularly bad in those parts of the urban areas that are free-standing towns within the Humberside County Council.

Scunthorpe has suffered particularly from this problem. It receives no help from the county council towards the services of the established bus operator in the area, which is a National Bus Company subsidiary.

Mr. John Ellis

This is a grievous position. Scunthorpe stands like an oasis trying to maintain services while it has been sabotaged by the county council.

Mr. Horam

Indeed. The fact that urban areas do not receive sufficient support can also damage surrounding rural areas. The same company often serves both areas, and the problem of covering overheads is magnified. This is a severe problem, and I am glad that my hon. Friends have drawn it to the attention of the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe raised the problem of post office closures. I know what care he has taken on this subject over the years. I cannot comment on the figures that he gave. I have figures which do not wholly agree with what he said about the number of post office closures in his constituency, but no doubt this matter can be cleared up. Certainly there can be no doubt that post offices have been closed in his constituency during the last few years.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry will have made clear that this is an internal matter for the management of the Post Office, but there is no deliberate Post Office policy to reduce the number of sub-post offices in rural areas. Such offices are closed either where the volume of business demonstrates that there is no longer a public demand for them or where the sub-postmaster resigns and no replacement can be found. My hon. Friend fairly made that point. His basic argument is valid. This is a trend in country areas and it multiplies the problems faced from other sources.

Mr. McNamara

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) and I have discussed this matter on many occasions. While post office closures in rural areas may appear more dramatic, closures in urban areas, particularly on Humberside, are equally dramatic. Because of main roads, patterns of usage, distances and all sorts of other problems in urban areas, we need more post offices in many of those areas, but we are having them closed.

Mr. Horam

I understand that, but the essential point put by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe was that closures increase the problems faced by people in rural areas, particularly as they have to go much further to get the same service than they would if they lived in an urban area where there was a post office closure.

In the Budget the Government have once again brought help to rural areas by making more funds available—£20 million in all—for environmental services, which will include the building of small factories in rural areas by the Development Commission, which is particularly responsible for such factory development. It will have more funds available as a result of the Budget. That is evidence of the way in which the Government are trying to help with this problem, which will not go away and which my hon. Friends have demonstrated clearly is particularly acute on Humberside

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.