HC Deb 20 November 2001 vol 375 cc291-8

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

10.45 pm
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

I am grateful to the Minister for returning to the Chamber so soon after our last encounter in Westminster Hall. I know that he had a long stint today in Westminster Hall on a different transport matter.

The Minister will remember that when we discussed transport congestion, I mentioned the problems faced by bus operators and passengers in Surrey and, indeed, in other parts of the south-east, because of the wide discrepancies in public funding made available for buses inside and outside London. That is the issue to which I shall return tonight.

At the heart of the problem faced by those in my constituency and so many others in the area is an issue that affects the south-east on a far broader basis than simply in relation to transport. The allocation of financial support to local authorities and the structuring of financial support to a whole range of public services mean that when one reaches the boundaries of London, the money seems to fall off a cliff. That fact manifests itself in a variety of ways. For example, extra London weighting for teaching, the police and the health service means that people in those professions can earn thousands of pounds a year more by travelling three miles up the road.

The problem is particularly acute for our bus services. The decision by London's Mayor to deploy the huge resources available to him in supporting the development of London's bus network and cutting bus fares to a fixed level of £1 or 70p is undoubtedly good news for bus travellers in London. It is also good news for those who have access to routes covered by London-based bus operators. For them, the price of travel will also fall. However, the consequences for bus services in the counties surrounding London are much bleaker. Let me give the Minister an example.

Arriva Southern Counties operates a route from Guildford to Epsom and Kingston, running through my constituency. The stops between Epsom and Kingston are the most popular part of the route and provide the only direct transport link between the two towns. On the route, Arriva competes with one of the London operators. So far, the playing field has been level, but now that is changing. The introduction of the flat rate fares in London has transformed the economics of bus operations for those operating across the London boundaries with routes that head out into counties such as Surrey. Arriva has to match the £1 flat fare on that leg of the route but has no public subsidy enabling it to do so. As a result, the major leg of a long and important bus route through Surrey is potentially no longer viable.

I do not yet know what Arriva will do in response to the change, but I have every reason to fear that the entire route will disappear. The company said to me this morning that it was gravely concerned about the future of the route. Over the busy part of the route, from Epsom to Kingston, other operators can take Arriva's place, benefiting from the London subsidy. However, other options for the rest of the route through Surrey will be much harder to find. The likelihood is that new public money will have to be found to keep those parts of the route open, if only because, among other points on the route, that bus is the only major link that serves Epsom general hospital.

Elsewhere in the south-east, similar problems are being experienced. In Kent, according to the county council, buses operated by London firms benefiting from the subsidy provided by Transport for London are coming out of London, stopping in Dartford and heading on to the Bluewater shopping centre. On that route, the local operator used to charge £1.60—now, in line with the London subsidies, it charges £1, but, of course, without the benefit of any subsidy. That cannot be right. The matter has been compounded still further by the fact that Transport for London operates a weekly travelcard which effectively reduces the fare still further to about 65p. Kent county council has written to Transport for London about the problem, but has yet to receive a proper reply.

There are similar problems in other places in the south-east. Anywhere around London, county councils make similar complaints. For example, Buckinghamshire county council says that the current system is a "barrier and deterrent" to operators who might otherwise set up services.

From the perspective of authorities such as Surrey and Kent, Transport for London appears to have access to almost unlimited funds and, in consequence, is rapidly increasing both the frequency and the quality of its bus services. I had a look at the websites of TFL and of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to check on spending on buses in London. This year, TFL is able to increase its funding for bus services by £115 million—from less than £100 million to well over £200 million. According to the Department's figures, that represents about 30 per cent. of the entire amount spent throughout the country on supporting bus services.

Meanwhile, outside the areas covered by TFL—where it can deliver service subsidies—unregulated, free market bus services simply cannot afford to compete. They cannot meet TFL's standards unless they receive serious subsidies from county councils, but those councils do not receive the amount of funding that would allow them to compete with the London operators on anything like a level playing field.

The consequence is that London operators continue to cream off the best routes in the area—those that cross the boundaries and those that, as they are closer to the metropolis, will tend to carry a larger number of passengers—supported, as they are, by large amounts of public funding. At the same time, more marginal routes, which are probably kept open by the operators because they know that the more profitable areas will sustain their business, risk being dropped by the operators, who are no longer able to make a return on their services in the area.

I fully expect that the Minister will be tempted to hark back to past events—as he and his colleagues often do. I suspect that he might refer to bus deregulation, so I shall tackle it head on. There is no doubt that the history of bus transportation has been a difficult one for a generation. In many places, people do not use buses as much as we might want them to. As a result, it can be difficult to keep marginal routes open. One of the often forgotten facts about bus deregulation is that after it took place there were more buses on Britain's roads. However, in many places passengers still did not use buses.

In Surrey, we are not talking only about losing fringe routes, we also face the loss of main routes that link major towns in the county. That is happening not due to the pressures of a free market, nor to the consequences of deregulation, but because of a clash between free market economics and a distinctly regulated and subsidised market.

Surrey county council and others like it are trying to stem the tide of closures, but it is not easy. Surrey's investment in socially necessary bus routes—those deemed not commercially viable by the operators, but assessed as socially necessary for the people of the area—has increased during the past 18 months by £2 million a year to about £5 million.

Inevitably, that funding increase has had to be found from the existing county council budget. In Surrey, that has meant taking funding away from the creation of concessionary bus schemes that could provide cheaper travel for pensioners. That money should be available to support those who need it, but it is having to be used to shore up services that we cannot afford to lose.

Worthwhile initiatives, such as the introduction of a 50p flat rate fare for pensioners throughout the country, had to be delayed as the county intervened to defend routes that would otherwise have disappeared. Officers estimate that they would need a fourfold increase in funding support for socially necessary bus services in order to bring local services up to a level similar to that provided by TFL.

The biggest losers are those people who can least afford it. If the Minister can spare a moment to look at the geography of my constituency, and that of many similar constituencies on the boundaries of London, he will see that the dividing line between a London and a Surrey community can be extremely narrow. One town, Worcester Park, is split down the middle between Surrey and the London boroughs of Sutton and Kingston. Of course, that dividing line can lead to huge perceived iniquities in the eyes of many local people. No issue enrages the pensioners of Worcester Park, Stoneleigh and Ewell more than the fact that they have to pay for their public transport, while neighbours a couple of streets away are given free access to public transport through the popular freedom pass.

Surrey only has the finance to offer half-price fares; London boroughs receive the funds to do much more. Ironically, some people with local postal addresses manage to get away with getting freedom passes any way. They have Worcester Park addresses and the systems are not good enough to check up on them, but that is not an acceptable way to deliver free bus travel to the people of the northern part of my constituency.

Let me refer the Minister to an excerpt from a letter that I received on this subject. One of my constituents told me that, for years now, people have been disappointed about the bus pass system", and that they don't have to travel very far to see public transport full of senior citizens enjoying the free bus pass facility. That is true; it happens a few hundred yards up the road at the next stop. I sympathise with their frustration. It seems odd that two people on the same bus, who live in the same community, find themselves paying vastly different amounts for the privilege. Of course, there are administrative reasons why that is the case, but the Minister will recognise that our pensioners do not see it that way; they see it as another injustice.

The problem has attracted broader concern. Help the Aged recently said: There is a real postcode lottery in terms of where pensioners live and what they are offered by way of concessionary travel. Of course, none of that would happen in that part of the world if public funding did not seem to fall off a cliff the moment that it reaches the border of London. Despite the fact that the south-east is already overcrowded and congested, as we discussed in a recent debate in Westminster Hall, discrepancies exist in the allocation of funding. TFL and those who operate buses and other forms of transport in London receive much more in public money and support for concessionary fare schemes than the counties that surround them. As a consequence, we shall have less, not more, public transport in the areas immediately surrounding London, and that cannot be good for the south-east or the whole country.

The Minister will be aware that TFL is currently carrying out a review of cross-boundary bus services. I have made the points that I have made in my speech tonight to TFL as part of its review, and I urge him to do the same and to consider fully the matters that I have outlined tonight in his submission to that review.

I cannot help but conclude that part of the problem lies in the way that the Government have handled devolution in this country. The creation of the Mayor of London and the devolution of powers to him and to the Assembly have created something of a unnecessary divide between London and the rest of the south-east. In reality, the two are integrally linked, and the decisions taken by central Government about the funding support that London should receive cannot be considered in total isolation from the real interests of the wider region. The idea that we might end up with two rival regional governments—one in London, the other in Guildford—taking decisions with diametrically opposite consequences fills me with horror.

while I have the Minister's attention, I should like to turn briefly to security on buses and other forms of transport. One of the threats to bus routes in and around London comes from antisocial behaviour. In one part of my constituency, a bus route was recently withdrawn temporarily because of the constant threats to drivers. Similar problems are now being experienced on trains in the area. Will the Minister please work with his colleagues in the Home Office to strengthen the ability of transport operators and local police to take action against those whose behaviour disrupts our local transport system and makes the life of other passengers a misery?

Let me finish by making some specific requests to the Minister. When this year's allocation of support grants to local authorities are made, will he press his colleagues in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to provide councils in the south-east with adequate funding for local public transport to remove some of the differentials that, as I have said, exist between them? Will he make it illegal for a local authority to offer a subsidy to one operator on a route without offering a similar subsidy to all the other operators on that route? Will he and his Department recognise the integral links between London and the rest of the south-east and work with the London Mayor to establish clear protocols for ensuring that London decisions do not destabilise services in the surrounding areas?

Many bus users in my constituency and their counterparts further south face a bleak few months. I fear that more services will disappear in Surrey and in other parts of the south-east. Although those who can take advantage of the cross-boundary London services will enjoy cheaper fares, the remainder will have their options greatly narrowed.

Not all the factors causing the trend are within the Minister's gift but—rather more than I do—he has the power to do something about the problems. I very much hope that he will do so.

11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing this important debate for his constituents. He is becoming a regular contributor to debates on transport matters. We have been seen so often in the same room discussing the subject that I fear that people may begin to talk. He also thanked me for coming here to answer the debate, but there was no need for him to do that. There is no place that I would rather be at 11 o'clock at night than here answering a debate on the matters that he raised.

I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's points. He has raised concerns about the disparities that exist on the fringes of London in the charging structures for bus services. One concern relates to concessionary travel passes for pensioners and the other relates to the effects of Transport for London's fare policies. I should like to start by saying how important the Government regard bus services in providing essential public transport. We probably agree on that.

It will be helpful to the House if I put the matters raised in the debate in the context of our overall approach to improving bus services. Last year, we produced our 10-year transport plan, which identified the major investment that we need to make to achieve the kind of improvements that we all want. The 10-year transport plan and associated investment will modernise public transport and improve the road network. It will deliver improvements for passengers, motorists and business—to make journeys quicker, easier and safer for everyone. The bus has an absolutely vital role to play in delivering the plan.

In London, responsibility for bus services rests with the Mayor for London and his transport executive, Transport for London. The Mayor's policies on buses are set out in his statutory transport strategy published in July under section 142 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Copies of the strategy are available in the Library. It highlights the vital role that buses already play in the capital's transport system and outlines the Mayor's plans to achieve a significant improvement in both the quantity and quality of services.

The transport strategy explains that bus fare initiatives, in parallel with service improvements, have the potential to alleviate rail overcrowding and offer a real alternative to the car because capacity on the bus system can be increased more rapidly.

Buses are the most commonly used form of public transport in this country. So, when formulating our transport policies for outside London, we took a particularly close look at what changes were necessary in the existing arrangements for buses in order to raise the standard of service provision. In doing so, we took on board a very wide range of views from all parts of the bus industry in both the private and public sectors, as well as from a broad range of other interest groups.

Broadly speaking, our proposals for buses are aimed at strengthening the existing arrangements and improving the stability of services while seeking to encourage the investment and good practice that commercial operators have shown they are capable of providing.

We have recently put in place, under the Transport Act 2000, powers to improve the quality and delivery of bus services. These powers—for the introduction of statutory quality partnerships and quality contracts—are designed to address the weaknesses of the deregulated regime that we inherited from our predecessors. The hon. Gentleman was not in the House at the time but, if he had been, 26 October 1986 would have been clear in his mind as the date on which deregulation was introduced by the then Government. The policy did much damage to bus services, particularly in areas such as his.

On concessionary fares, the Transport Act 2000 places a duty on all local authorities to offer their elderly and disabled residents at least half fares or better on local buses, with a free bus pass. It is up to individual authorities to decide whether to offer further concessions over and above the statutory minimum requirement in the light of their judgment of local needs and circumstances and their overall financial priorities.

The basic principle of the concessionary travel passes provided by local authorities is that they are local passes for local people. They are there to enable elderly or disabled residents to go about their essential daily business and enhance their mobility. Parliament has placed a duty on local authorities to provide half-fare concessions, but it is up to individual authorities to decide whether to go beyond the statutory minimum.

Residents of all London boroughs who are entitled to concessionary travel get freedom passes that allow free travel on most transport services within Greater London. Outside London, it is the responsibility of district councils to provide the standard minimum requirement or better. There is nothing to prevent local authorities from working with neighbouring authorities to provide a countywide or an area-wide scheme, or to make special arrangements with transport operators in respect of particular journeys, for example to a hospital or superstore. Indeed, Surrey residents have concessions granted by local authorities acting jointly under the auspices of Surrey county council.

The countywide scheme provides half-fare bus travel within Surrey and on bus services making specified cross-boundary journeys. The hon. Gentleman may well say that that is a less generous scheme than the London scheme. However, it would be wrong for us in Westminster to dictate to local authorities their policies on concessionary fares. We are clear that those matters are best decided locally.

The hon. Gentleman complained about the disparities between concessionary travel in London and some outer London areas. It may help him to know that it was mainly Labour boroughs that came together in London to introduce free bus travel for elderly and disabled people in the first instance. In those parts of the country where, unlike his area, concessionary half fares were not available—some people were receiving no concessions at all—the Government have made them available in our latest transport legislation.

I am intrigued to know whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that London pensioners should not have the full concessionary fare. Is he suggesting—perhaps he will include this in his manifesto for the Conservatives in London—that they would remove that concessionary fare? If that were his policy, it would not receive universal approval from those people who benefit from it. I listened carefully to him. Perhaps he should go to his county council and make his points on behalf of the disabled and elderly people within his area. It is in the power of the local authority to grant further concessions to pensioners if he and the local electorate think that that is what is required.

Chris Grayling

The core of the argument is not that we want to remove concessionary schemes from pensioners in London. My point relates to a broad range of services, not simply transport. When one reaches the boundaries of London, the level of support for local authorities falls dramatically. Councils such as Surrey do not have the resources to meet the vast range of demands on its needs. They do not have the cash to do that. Transport is one such demand.

Mr. Jamieson

Virtually every authority outside London may well make the same point. Many other authorities, probably far less well off than his own in Surrey, make concessionary fares available—they are totally free—to all elderly people in the area. They make that decision as politicians. People decide on such things when they go to the ballot box. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman engages in the issue locally and asks the people what they think about the choices that face the local authority. These matters are determined locally, rather than by the Government. However, we have ensured that there is a base below which concessions for pensioners do not go, and that should be at least half fare.

Local authorities outside London, of course, have powers under the Transport Act 1985 to subsidise bus services where a necessary service would not otherwise be provided. They can provide such a service by contracting it from an operator on a competitively tendered basis, but it is for each authority to decide whether to subsidise a service, taking account of its overall priorities and financial resources.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the review of cross-boundary bus services. That was announced in the Mayor's transport strategy, and on 12 October Transport for London issued a press notice inviting contributions. The review is investigating the appropriate level of provision for local bus services across the GLA area boundary. It will take account of passenger requirements, existing service provision and the statutory responsibilities of Transport for London and neighbouring local authorities. It will aim to ensure that there is provision for the needs of bus passengers using cross-boundary services.

The review will also consider the London Transport Users Committee publication "Crossing the Border". I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has seen it, but if he has not I commend it to him as light bedtime reading. It was published in January and concerns the provision of cross-boundary services. The first stage of the study is to obtain the views of interested parties, including adjoining county and unitary councils, London boroughs, bus operators, democratic representatives, the London Transport Users Committee and other users. The aim is to ensure that bus passengers using services that cross the GLA area boundary are treated with equity, taking into account the statutory responsibilities of Transport for London and the neighbouring authorities. I strongly recommend that the hon. Gentleman and other Members with an interest contribute to the review.

I understand that Transport for London has absolutely no policy of providing cross-boundary services to seize business from commercial operators by unfair competition. Indeed, by agreement with Transport for London, under section 156 of the GLA Act, commercial operators can, and do, run services across the London boundary. Those services, such as the Surrey to Kingston service, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, are considered to be, and are operated, within the London bus network. They are licensed under London local service agreements. They stop at all bus stops and must, therefore. accept Transport for London travel passes and charge the same fares as bus services under contract to Transport for London.

Commercial operators outside the London bus network, such as National Express and Greenline, and those providing a limited-stop commuter service to the Medway towns, can also apply to Transport for London to operate services within Greater London through the grant of a London service permit. That would permit the operation of the London section of a cross-boundary service. As Transport for London is specifically prohibited from determining fare levels on such services, under section 187(3) of the GLA Act, operators are not restricted in what fares they can charge. However, Transport for London does not reimburse operators for the acceptance of its season tickets on those services.

I can see that the present arrangements may lead to certain anomalies of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Anomalies tend to occur, and not just in the sphere of transport, wherever people living on either side of an administrative boundary use the same facilities. That is the downside of locally responsive services, and it is often accepted as a price worth paying for decentralisation. Transport for London has boundaries not only with Surrey but with Essex, Kent, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's constituents, who see pensioners and disabled people living nearby getting what they consider to be a better service. However, these matters are determined not in Westminster or Whitehall but by councillors responding to the needs and wishes of their local electorate. If the hon. Gentleman feels so disposed, he could start a campaign with the old folk and disabled groups in his area to see whether he can get the council to provide better concessionary fares. I thank him for raising the issue, and I look forward to hearing from him on another occasion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Eleven o' clock.