HC Deb 21 February 1979 vol 963 cc420-2
26. Mr. Ron Lewis

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he is satisfied with the present level of expenditure on bus revenue support.

Mr. William Rodgers

Revenue support in shire counties is rising broadly as planned, but there are still counties which could do more to maintain and improve bus services. I made this clear in the recent TSG settlement.

Mr. Lewis

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there is now a serious danger that the White Paper proposals for increased spending on rural buses will not be met, and can he confirm that this is so largely because many of the shire counties, which are Tory-dominated, will not take the initiative in this matter?

Mr. Rodgers

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I have to say that a number of shire counties—especially one or two of them—have a very poor record in support for their buses. As my hon. Friend says, these are Tory councils. I am still hopeful for their redemption, however, because there is a powerful case for improving our public transport everywhere, but particularly in rural areas.

Mr. Farr

Is the Secretary of State aware that the situation is rapidly changing with the escalating cost of fuel, which means that many people living in country areas are virtually cut off from public transport? Will he look at the new picture in a new light today and see what he can do to help?

Mr. Rodgers

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support, because there has been a considerable deterioration in public transport in rural areas over a period of time. We are attempting to remedy this both by the provision for extra spending on public transport and by the Transport Act 1978, which should lead to a substantial improvement in both conventional and rather less conventional transport in rural areas.

Miss Maynard

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me, as someone who has lived for the greater part of her life in a shire county, that the Tory leopard is most unlikely to change its spots? If the Tory councils do not spend the money which he has allocated, what will he propose to do?

Mr. Rodgers

I understand my hon. Friend's scepticism, and I think that it would be justified in a number of parts of the country. But the truth is that, whereas in 1977–78 about £34 million was being spent on revenue support in shire counties, that figure has since risen to about £45 million; so I think that there is still some hope. If I am wrong and my hon. Friend's scepticism proves justified, we must look at the problem again.

Mr. Moate

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, whatever Government schemes are introduced, the local authorities still have to find about 40 per cent. of the total cost of these bus support schemes? If he is right in asserting, as I believe him to be, that what we are concerned with ultimately is service to the public, and not subsidy to the public, and these schemes involve giving less to those areas which have the most inadequate services, is it not more important to relax the licensing system so that one can get improved services in those remote rural areas which at present perhaps have no bus services at all?

Mr. Rodgers

The hon. Gentleman is wrong if he implies that there is a contradiction between service and subsidy. Without substantial subsidies to public transport, especially in rural areas, there would be no prospect of providing a service. I think that that has been largely accepted. There are still some areas that are trying to provide a service in circumstances where it is uneconomic but where the need is real. That should be remedied within the provision that I have already made under the TSG.