HC Deb 01 July 1997 vol 297 cc104-5
38. Mr. Marten Jones

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will make a statement on his Department's initiatives to address public transport problems in rural areas. [4701]

Dr. Strang

I fully recognise the particular transport needs of rural communities and the crucial role for public transport. The rural dimension of transport policy and the need to enhance public transport services will be addressed in the fundamental review of transport policy announced last month.

Mr. Jones

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the Countryside Commission report of about three years ago, suggesting that rural transport levels would soar, possibly doubling in some areas. Has he any plans to ask local authorities to introduce experimental package approaches to transport planning, such as have been common in urban areas in the past couple of years?

Dr. Strang

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is certainly the case that local authorities have a crucial role to play in transport policy. All those issues, and especially rural transport, will be addressed in the comprehensive transport review that we are conducting in advance of the White Paper.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I understand the Minister's reply, but does not he accept that, in the real world, public transport will never serve some of the more remote rural villages, such as Kettleshulme, Wincle, Wildboarclough, Saltersford and Allgreave in my constituency, unless the Government are to have an extremely heavy funding liability through local government? Is it not therefore essential, in considering petrol tax and other fiscal measures, to balance the interests of rural areas that will never have public transport and those of other areas?

Dr. Strang

Of course, there is truth in the hon. Gentleman's point that there are remote areas where a bus service will never run right to the door or even within walking distance, but it is also true that in many rural areas, as a consequence of deregulation and unrestricted competition, there has been a diminution in rural bus services. We want to tackle that problem.

Sir Norman Fowler

While I strongly support all improvements in public transport in rural areas, some of which have been made possible by deregulation, does the Minister agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) is entirely right and that many people in rural areas will remain dependent on their ears? Is it not important that their needs should be taken into account in framing policy?

Dr. Strang

I have accepted that point, but I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that a single bus operator that is operating a service from early morning until late in the evening can subsidise the off-peak services from the profits of the peak-time, heavily loaded buses. In many rural areas, plenty of operators are willing to operate buses during peak hours, but young people have found themselves stranded in rural communities with no bus to take them into their local town or get them home in the evening.