HC Deb 20 April 2004 vol 420 cc135-6
1. Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD)

If he will make a statement on the relationship between transport provision and access to public services in rural areas. [166169]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Kim Howells)

Good transport is important in improving access to public services in rural areas. We recognised that in targeting additional investment to improve accessibility for rural communities. We have invested £240 million in rural transport in the last three years alone, a 54 per cent. increase on the previous three years.

Nick Harvey

Obviously new investment is welcome, but is the Minister aware that those improvements arise from a very low base? In my constituency, bus services to our hospital have been cut, and although we have welcome new sport and theatre facilities, using them in the evenings is an unimaginable dream for many youngsters because bus services stop at 6 pm. What impact does the Minister expect the forthcoming School Transport Bill to have on public transport provision in rural areas, which is already sparse? It raises the spectre of more children having to pay to travel to school by bus, which will inevitably drive more of them into the car run.

Dr. Howells

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. We must encourage people to use buses much more. What worries me is that, although large amounts are being spent on bus subsidies in rural areas, few people use the buses. I know that several initiatives have been launched in the hon. Gentleman's constituency—a 1999 initiative called, I believe, Buses Are Cool, followed by Life in the Bus Lane and Life in the Bus Lane 2. A great deal of money is being spent on efforts to encourage young people in particular to get to the places mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but there is much more work to be done. Local authorities have a responsibility to publicise the fact that they are investing in bus services, especially in rural areas. If there were more publicity and we could generate a better image for buses, many more people might use them.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Coop)

Following the disasters of deregulation and privatisation, this Government's progress since 1997 has been commendable; but for a small extra amount—just £300 million per year—standards could be raised, and the free bus travel for pensioners that is available in other countries of the United Kingdom could be extended to England. Is my hon. Friend confident that we can make progress in that respect, and also raise the minimum standard of the scheme by eliminating rush-hour exemptions? That would enable pensioners in Castle Donington, for instance, to keep appointments at Derby Royal infirmary without having to wait until 9.30 am.

Dr. Howells

I am sure that my hon. Friend is on top of that quandary for pensioners in his constituency, and can work with local authorities to ensure that proper bus services are provided. The money has not been in short supply. The £300 million that my hon. Friend mentioned is not an inconsiderable sum; it is a very large sum. We are spending huge amounts on bus subsidies, but they are not always used to best effect. There must be a better way of getting value for precious taxpayers' money.

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