§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)
We have an excellent record of supporting rural bus services. Since 1998, rural bus subsidy grant allocations have totalled more than £200 million. This year's allocation is £48.5 million, which supports more than 2,100 rural bus services throughout England. We have also supported some 250 projects, totalling £89 million, through the rural bus challenge.
§ Norman Lamb
I thank the Minister for that response, but may I remind him that, in Norfolk, Countryside Agency funding for a number of valuable dial-a-ride services is coming to an end? In some cases, it has already come to an end. The county council has failed to plug the gap that has been left, so a number of schemes are on the brink of being lost. What action is he taking to secure sustainable funding for these very important schemes, which an awful lot of elderly people, especially those in rural areas, rely on absolutely?
§ Mr. McNulty
First and foremost, that is a matter for Norfolk county council and the Countryside Agency. The hon. Gentleman has been in touch with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to express those concerns, but he will know that Norfolk's rural bus subsidy grant allocation this year is £2.4 million—the largest in the country—and that Norfolk has also received rural bus challenge funding for six projects totalling £2.3 million. The RBC currently provides £276,000 for the flexibus project in North Norfolk.
The hon. Gentleman raised this issue in an Adjournment debate last July and said that he would write to me to secure a meeting. The letter requesting that meeting arrived on 24 December, so I congratulate him on his speed and would say simply in response that I am more than happy to meet him and anyone else from Norfolk to discuss matters further. However, first and foremost, much of what he raises is for the county council and DEFRA, but I am happy to meet him.
§ Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab)
Does my hon. Friend accept that pensioners travelling on buses in rural areas 142 receive far less public subsidy in terms of concessionary fares than pensioners in urban areas of England, which have passenger transport authorities? Does not that underline the need for England to follow the example of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in offering all pensioners free off-peak bus travel in urban and rural areas?
§ Mr. McNulty
That is certainly a view, and I am more than happy to discuss it further with my hon. Friend, not least in terms of the amount it would cost. We will shortly announce another package of rural bus challenge funds, including kickstart funding, but we are clear that the bus is central to an integrated transport solution to social exclusion in rural and urban areas, not least for the elderly.
§ Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con)
Even before the announcement of local government funding, Lib-Dem controlled Somerset county council announced that it was considering cutting its subsidy for buses by up to a quarter, despite the fact it is a rural county. How does that accord with Government policy?
§ Mr. McNulty
Happily, it does not accord with Government policy. Of course, the Lib Dems in Somerset probably have a different policy from Lib Dems in the neighbouring counties and districts. Absolutely nothing that the Lib Dems do or say accords with Government policy, which is why they will for ever remain a rump in the House and we will remain in government.