§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson)
Traditionally, rural areas have been poorly served by bus services, especially since deregulation in the 1980s. That is one of the reasons why we introduced new powers in the Transport Act 2000 that will improve bus services throughout the country by raising standards and improving access to services. Furthermore, a 50 per cent. increase over the current three-year period in funding for rural bus grants will provide for further improvements to rural bus services. My hon. Friend will be aware that Kent has received a generous allowance this year of £1.6 million in the form of rural bus subsidy grant.
§ Mr. Pond
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that Gravesham has an award-winning town centre, a brand new hospital on its doorstep and two fine leisure centres, but that these facilities are not easily accessible to many of my rural constituents who do not have a car? Indeed, neither can many of those who live in urban areas enjoy the fine countryside nearby. Will he give my constituents some optimism that, in the not-too-distant 172 future, they will have something other than the rather sparse and expensive bus services that are now available, but which are often not available at all on Sundays?
§ Mr. Jamieson
I know that my hon. Friend is a tireless campaigner on behalf of his rural constituents. I can appreciate why he wants them to reap the benefits of the excellent new facilities provided by Gravesham borough council, which is, I believe, a Labour council. Not only has Kent had a generous settlement for rural bus subsidy, but it has had several bids accepted under the rural bus challenge scheme of more than El million in the past three years. If he wants to find an example of a good scheme that is currently operating, there is one outside his area that was last year awarded £275,000. The scheme, which is called the Bike and Bus Butty, uses minibuses for towing trailers to bring cycles to their riders place of work or destination. If he is considering making a journey out of London in the next few days, he should know that he will find that scheme in Ipswich.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
The Minister will be aware that his Department has just turned down a grant for Ipswich borough council in a rural part of that constituency. If the people of Ipswich cannot get a decent bus service during a by-election, when can the people of this country ever expect this Government to support rural buses again?
§ Mr. Jamieson
I am sorry that I pre-empted the hon. Gentleman by announcing a scheme that has been undertaken in Ipswich. I am sure that, in the by-election, the people of Ipswich will be reflecting on just how much money they would have received for their rural bus services in the unfortunate event of his party having won the election in June.
§ Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough)
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that rural bus services have doubled in some areas in my constituency. Unfortunately, however, the buses still travel at the wrong time to get people into the town centre of Loughborough, which makes it almost impossible to increase bus usage. Will he ensure that this money, which is very welcome, is targeted at the sort of people whom we need, including bus commuters and people who travel during the day? We need much more flexible use, so that people can not only use bus routes from villages straight into town, but visit large numbers of villages in the surrounding area, perhaps by using minibuses or other innovative schemes.
§ Mr. Jamieson
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. He may not be aware of the number of innovative schemes that have been introduced throughout the country under the rural bus challenge. Some of them involve car taxis, one of which I visited recently in Lincoln. The scheme is very successfully bringing people who dial-a-ride into centres where they can either catch a bus or get on to the rail services. We are committed to looking at innovative ways of improving bus transport for people not only in rural areas, but in urban areas.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
Commercial buses already get a fuel duty rebate. Some 18 months ago, the Government promised to give community transport such a rebate. When will they fulfil that promise?