HL Deb 10 December 1970 vol 313 cc1137-59

8.32 p.m.

THE EARL OF KINNOULL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the growing concern in the decline of services in rural communications. The noble Earl said: My Lords, following that exciting result on the Second Reading of my noble friend's Bill on Sunday trading, I should like now to raise a different issue which has in fact been on the Order Paper no fewer than five times. The issue I should like to raise is the serious subject of the decline over the last ten years of the country's rural public transport services and communications. I mention that this Question has been on and off the Order Paper since before the last Election only to explain my determination to persevere to-night. It is, as I have already said, an important issue, and I have every confidence in my noble friend Lord Sandford to deal with it, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, with encouragement and with a clear guidance as to the plans the Government have to ensure that those who live in rural areas, those who work in rural areas and those who rely on rural communications can look forward to a better to-morrow. Perhaps I could add at this stage that, despite the lateness of the hour, I personally very much regret that the Opposition Front Bench appear to regard rural communication with such a singular lack of interest that they are unable to field even a twelfth man to give their views on this subject.


My Lords, I hope the noble Earl will realise that there is at least a thirteenth mart.


My Lords, perhaps I was being unkind; maybe they have not quite the stamina of those on this side of the House. May I say immediately how glad I am for the support of other speakers, and I am sure everyone looks forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Berkeley, on this subject. My purpose is to demonstrate what I believe to be now an unacceptable decline in the standard of rural communications. I hope by the end of the debate my noble friend will be convinced, as I am and I think many others are, that there is now an urgent need for Her Majesty's Government to review this whole subject.

When we take the past ten years and examine what has happened in general terms of rural communication—and here I include both public transport and the Post Office services—we find, I suggest, that there are five major points to consider. The first is that all Governments over the past ten years have agreed that rural communication should be protected by an adequate standard of services and that a policy against depopulation of the rural areas should be actively pursued for the good of the country. My second point is that public transport in rural areas is in a state of transition, where more and more people have their own cars, which makes the rural transport services perhaps that much more uneconomic. My third point is that British Rail have reduced their services in rural areas by the closure of branch lines by some 85 per cent. of their services, closing over 2,200 passenger stations and leaving some 15 million people living in rural areas without accessible rail services. I should like the information that I have gathered to be confirmed, if possible, by my noble friend, and if he could give us the trend—and the future trend—of the rail closures I should be much obliged.

My fourth point is that the rural bus services, including those which were introduced as an alternative service following the rail closures, are being withdrawn or their frequency of service drastically cut, to the great concern of users and such responsible bodies as the Rural District Councils Association and the Parish Councils Association. I have no specific figures on these withdrawals but perhaps again my noble friend could give us some information on this subject. My final point is that the sub-post offices or the village post offices are gradually being withdrawn. My figures here—and I draw them from the Post Office Half-Year Report, the first half-year of their operations—shows that some 150 sub-post offices have been closed in the last six months.

All in all, I believe that the rural dweller to-day faces a gloomy future if the present trend of decline is allowed to continue. No rail services, decreasing bus services and fewer and fewer post offices in villages, all, I suggest, amount to a decline in the standards of rural communications. It is, I know, all too easy to criticise from the Back-Benches the standard of rural services when for the Front Bench the issue is largely one of finance. One appreciates that it is the duty of any Government to weigh up both the standards of service that are necessary, against, to some extent, the cost of central grant for running those services. Most of us know that at the present time the Government are actively concerned with grants under Section 34 of the Transport Act 1968. Those grants enable the cost of rural services to be shared by both central and local government. The purpose of my drawing attention to the rural services does not involve the grant system as to whether or not it is working satisfactorily—although I hope that when my noble friend replies he will be able to give us some information as to the co-operation between central and local government in regard to the grants.

My Lords, the purpose of my question is really to draw attention to the many areas which are now suffering, and also to the fact that no adequate machinery appears to be available, either to protect the users' interests or to advise the Government of the current standard of service. It is not difficult to discover numerous examples of rural areas where public transport services are grossly inadequate, particularly, of course, the more thinly populated areas, such as Scotland, Wales, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset, to name but a few, and I am sure my noble friends who are to take part in this short debate will produce a number of other examples.

Perhaps I may be permitted to quote two short examples that have come to me. The first came from a clerk of a council in Pembrokeshire and it emphasises the effect that a rail closure has had on passenger and freight services. He says: For a considerable period of time my Council and other Councils in the Pembroke County have made numerous representations to the Ministry of Transport, British Railways, the Secretary of State for Wales in respect of the retention and improvement of railway services in the area. The policies of British Rail have resulted in the fact that inadequate facilities exist at various railway stations throughout the area and because of reductions in services the community have become dependent upon other forms of public transport. In the Narberth area two Bus Companies operate … It is considered by my Council that services operating in the south of the district area and coming into the town of Narberth are inadequate to meet the requirements of the public, whilst in the north of the area, no such public transport facilities exist and people are solely dependent upon the use of private motor cars. The second example I should like to quote is a case from Honiton in Devon, and again from a member of a local council. He says that in the last few years there are a number of villages in that area which have lost their school, their policeman, their pub, their post office, their local railway service, and now have only a very indifferent bus service as communication. I think this example clearly emphasises the consequences of the decline of rural communications and the damaging effect it has on the community.

May I now turn to the present machinery of consultation between the user, the operator and the Government when bus services or rail services are being either withdrawn or reduced? I believe it is this that the Government should reconsider and indeed strengthen. These closures, one may add, are continuing still at a great pace, and the situation is not helped by the very temporary grants, often for only two or three years, that are given for the so-called unremunerative service. There is a system by which the T.U.C.C. call a public inquiry and report to the Minister, and they report on the fairly narrow issue of the local hardship that will be caused to the users. For a number of years this body in their annual report have stated that they feel that their existing powers are so narrowly drawn that their value as an effective body is very limited. Nevertheless, the procedure for a closure allows users to voice their opinion. This privilege is not extended to bus services, nor for that matter to air services. Both of these services can be withdrawn at fairly short notice should the operator wish, with no public inquiry and with no reference to the Minister.

The system of withdrawal of bus services was, I believe, particularly aggravated by a total change of policy by the last Administration to those services which were operated and treated as an alternative service following the rail closure. In 1965 the previous Government's policy for alternative bus services following a rail closure was summarised by a Statement on May 13, 1965 which said: The additional and revised bus services are a condition of the closure being effected. If, for any reason—for example, operators being unable or unwilling to provide them, or the traffic commissioners not licensing them—they are not provided, the closure cannot take place, unless or until my right hon. Friend varies the conditions. Let that be perfectly plain. The conditions are laid down and they must be satisfied according to these terms."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 13/5/65, col. 871.] In 1969 this clear undertaking and policy was reversed, when it was announced that the bus operators could withdraw their alternative services without reference to the Minister so long as that service had operated for at least two years. Why the magic period of two years was put in has never been properly explained.

If my noble friend accepts that the Government have a responsibility to see that the rural areas have adequate services and communications, I would suggest to him that one of the ways to secure this would be to amalgamate the present T.U.C.C.—the Transport Users' Consultative Committee—and the Traffic Commissioners into one body, as is being done in the civil air transport field, and to give this body adequate powers to act as a protector for the retention of adequate standards of service for rural communities.

May I now turn briefly to the withdrawal of post offices in rural areas? I should be grateful if my noble friend could advise us as to the intentions and policy of the Post Office towards the future of the rural post offices. And would he also inform us how the Government themselves view the need for the continuation of village post offices in the interests of village life? I was particularly disturbed in one case of a recent closure of a country post office in Aberdeenshire: this was in the small village of Auchmacoy. Before it closed earlier this year, this post office had a gross turnover of over £10,000, and when it was announced that the Post Office were to withdraw the service and close the post office there was a united objection from practically all the residents. Yet the Post Office shut down this post office on the ground that there was not sufficient business turnover, and not, as I should have expected, on the ground of social interest; nor, surprisingly, on the ground that they were not able to find a new postmaster. I should like my noble friend who is to reply to comment particularly on the criteria that the Post Office will use when closing down country post offices.

As my noble friend will be aware, the Jack Committee examined rural bus services, and reviewed the standard of services in 1959. In their Report the Committee made a number of conclusions and recommendations. Perhaps I may quote four of them—they are all fairly short. The first was that: The rural bus problem is the product of a number of factors, the chief of which is the increase in private transport. The second was: Some rural bus services must therefore be regarded as inadequate "— this followed on from the information they had disclosed. The third point was that: Steps should be taken forthwith to improve these services and to ensure the continuity of other services so long as these may be required. Then the fourth point was: The cost of financial assistance should fall partly on the Exchequer and partly on the County Councils. My Lords, I feel that all these points are very relevant to-day, and if the Jack Committee were sitting at the moment I believe they would find a considerable further decline in the standards of services since ten years ago. I hope that when my noble friend replies he will be able to say what steps the Government intend to take to review the situation of the decline of rural communications.

Finally, may I say, as I shall not have a chance later, how much I look forward to listening to my noble friend Lady Berkeley, and how pleased I am that she should have chosen the subject of this short debate to break the veils of silence to make her maiden speech.

8.50 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Kinnoull for initiating the debate on this Unstarred Question because, as he well knows, I live in a part of the world, in the Highlands of Scotland, where the deterioration in public transport is painfully obvious and is getting steadily worse. There are a good many reasons for this, but I will not go into them at any length because I have said all this before in numerous other debates that we have had dealing with the Highlands, and particularly with roads, transport and railways.

When the noble Lord, Lord Beeching, started what I considered to be this wholesale destruction of the railways we were at least promised an efficient alternative form of transport. I know of no case where the transport provided has been anything like efficient, and in many cases in my own part of the world the local transport has ceased to exist altogether. Again there are many reasons for this. Local contractors cannot afford it, as my noble friend said, because of the widespread use of the motor car. But a number of people who live in far-flung places have no car. There are also old people who travel. There are people with children, and with luggage, who find it difficult when they come off a train, if they are coming from the South with luggage, even to find where the bus starts from. It is supposed to connect with the train, but it does not. I could go on at some length about this matter, but time is short.

However, I should like my noble friend the Minister to ask his right honourable friend to think most carefully before we lose another railway—I refer of course to the West Coast line, from Inverness to Kyle, the only railway we have in the North, which connects the East Coast with Kyle and Skye. The reason for this suggested loss sounds wonderful. It is that we now have a bypass—an unheard of thing in my part of the world. The new bypass, by the side of Loch Carron, avoids using the old ferry. But I hasten to add that this bypass is only 11 ft. in width and has a single track with passing places. And not only that: it has steep gradients. The bypass was opened only a few months ago, and already it has been closed for a considerable time by land falls. These, I may say, will continue: I know that part of the world. There you get frost and heavy rains, and land falls will be a typical hazard in bad weather periods. There is another hazard. Every year we get an increasing number of caravans going over these roads. Can your Lordships imagine a caravan, probably heavy, hauled by a car without sufficient horsepower, and getting stuck? Can your Lordships imagine half a dozen of them together? There is another reason for opposing the closure of the Inverness-Kyle line. It would mean that we should have no route whatever in the whole of the North of Scotland down the South-West of Ross and Skye.

One may use the argument that the line does not pay. I have always been most suspicious of any accounts produced by British Railways. I admit that I do not understand accounts—I am not very good at them. But such extraordinary figures have been produced by British Railways on occasion, and then, for some other reason, they will produce other figures that contradict the first lot. I am perfectly certain that this railway, if properly run, could be a wonderful tourist attraction.

The line to which I refer is probably one of the most beautiful scenic railways in Scotland. Up to a few years ago we had an observation car on the train, which started from Inverness, came round to Dingwall and right through to Kyle. It was absolutely packed with people. People waited for it but could not get on it. This happened right through she summer months. The observation car was an old car, dating back, I suppose, to somewhere about the end of Queen Victoria's reign. The railway authorities thought it was getting a bit dangerous, so they took it off; whereupon they lost considerable income. Yet they have never thought of replacing it. Surely, at least in the summer months, three or four such coaches would Pack that train with passengers; and the rest of the train could be used for freight.

British Railways are adopting a shortsighted policy. I have a great suspicion that this line is desperately neglected. There are various ways in which we could make this railway pay. One reason for the neglect is that it is run from London. I know that there is what is called a Scottish Region, which has its headquarters in Glasgow; but I also happen to know that its orders come from Euston Station. That is quite wrong. This is most important, and I hope that the Minister will consider suggesting to British Rail (I know that they are a national Corporation) that if they cannot run this line they should give it to somebody who can. The people who know this railway best are those who work on it; and I know most of them. I will not say more on this most important matter, except that I think it would be a terrible mistake, from the point of view of those who live there, to close this line; and also a very great mistake from the point of view of the tourist industry.

My Lords, the only other suggestion I have concerns places where there are no railways—and that means the majority of places. I suggest that we go back to the old system whereby the Post Office ran a vehicle which carried goods and passengers, as well as mail. They were serving a useful purpose, but they seem to have given up that sort of thing. It was always done 30 or 40 years ago all over the West Coast, and I cannot see why it should not be done again. I will not say any more, because the hour is late. But I would ask the Minister to have a jolly good look at the preservation of our last line to the West Highlands.

8.56 p.m.


My Lords, it is with very great diffidence that I rise to address your Lordships this evening, as I am not accustomed to making speeches at all. Therefore I would crave your indulgence for my shortcomings, but I will not detain you for long. First, may I say how grateful I am to my noble friend Lord Kinnoull for initiating this debate. I wish to speak on rural bus services, as the unsatisfactory nature of these is causing grave concern to country dwellers. This form of transport is more necessary than ever, now that so many local cross-country rail services have ceased and stations are closed in many parts of the country. I know that there are other aspects, such as that of workers travelling to work by bus; but in many cases they have their own cars, and some factories run private coaches to collect their employees. Some even bicycle to work. So many are not dependent on a bus service.

But I wish to put the point of view of two types of the community who depend on buses; namely, the village housewife and the elderly—not so much the very old and frail, who are well looked after by relatives or by kindly neighbours who have cars. These, too, if in need, can call on the Social Services for home helps or meals-on-wheels—that splendid service which solves many problems for the aged. But I have in mind the elderly who are able to get about and who wish to be independent, and quite rightly so, but who are not able to walk long distances. If they live in the country they must be able to get to the nearest post office to collect their pensions, and to the shops, and to visit friends and relations and possibly those in hospital. Some companies run extra buses on hospital visiting afternoons. In many towns, too, there are clubs for the elderly, for recreation and companionship, run by voluntary organisations. All these would be impossible for the elderly to attend without public transport.

Then there is the village housewife. Her husband may own a car but will probably have gone to work in it. She will be stranded without a bus service. If she has small children she may have to take them to the doctor or to the welfare clinic at the nearest centre, unless there happens to be a mobile clinic which visits her village. She may have old parents at a distance, to visit and to look after. Above all, the housewife must be able to reach the nearest town or city to shop in order to feed and clothe her family. My Lords, delivery of goods by shops, with a few exceptions such as of dairy produce, is a service which, alas! has almost vanished during these last few years. So the housewife has to carry all her purchases, which places a very heavy burden on her, and transport becomes more necessary than ever.

I have no car, and have used the local bus service for about twenty years, so I understand and share the feelings of dismay of other travellers when there is talk of the number of buses being cut on a certain route. Or, worse still, the removal of an entire service, as this would cause real hardship and distress to those who use it. In the area where I live there used to be quite a good and fairly reliable bus service. Since last spring conditions have greatly deteriorated—the buses run at longer intervals and are far less reliable. At times a bus may not run at all, and without any notice. Passengers are stranded by the roadside, sometimes in pouring rain without any shelter, waiting in the hope that the next bus due will not fail to run. I am told that this occurs also in many other parts of the country.

Despite increases in fares—and these have risen considerably lately—the companies appear to have difficulty in maintaining enough staff to run the buses efficiently, partly due, I believe, to provisions in the recent Transport Act 1968. In order to keep down costs, would the answer be much smaller buses for rural areas staffed by only one person? Or could we follow the example of the Swiss, with their excellent post-bus service. I was unaware that this had ever run on the West Coast of Scotland. I know that it runs in various parts of the Continent. This combines delivery of mails with passenger service. Has this been considered? It might prove more economical and suitable for sparsely populated areas, where passengers are few.

My Lords, I hope that Her Majesty's Government realise how essential good and dependable transport services are to the rural community, and that they will treat this as a matter of great urgency. If nothing is done soon, the situation will worsen and break down altogether. So may I beg Her Majesty's Minister to do his utmost to see what remedy can be found to put rural transport on a sound and firm basis, and so keep the buses moving; moving down the winding roads and up the broad highways.

9.3 p.m.


My Lords, I have a very pleasant duty to perform in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Berkeley, on a very warm and sensible maiden speech. My noble friend Lord Grenfell had to wait for thirty years to perform a similar honour, but I have had to wait barely three. I congratulate the noble Baroness, who, as I say, has made a very warm and sincere speech on rural transport. The next person I must congratulate is my noble friend Lord Kinnoull, who has brought forward this subject. I consider this to be equally as important a subject as, if not more important than, pollution, as it affects the dereliction of the rural areas and their ways of communication. I am pleased to see that although at the beginning of the discussion on this short Unstarred Question there was only the one noble Baroness, there are now five members of the Opposition, which is a welcome improvement.

I will now come quickly to the present situation, in order not to keep your Lordships waiting. Many villages are now being cut off and licences are being surrendered. Furthermore, through staff shortages, buses simply are not turning up, which means that many people in the country going to work or shopping, and especially going to work, have to wait and look along the road for the bus to arrive, and no bus arrives. I put that forward merely as an introduction. That is what has happened, and it has produced general frustration for people living in country areas.

My noble friend has extended this debate from rural transport to post offices, and I want to make a short comment on that subject which has not been made yet. It is a subject I know little about, but I am sure a very important one. If country post offices are closed, I the shops will go too, because it is only the salaries which the Post Office provides for the small post offices in the country which have enabled those places to carry on. I know that there are general buying groups, and grocery groups, which help to alleviate the position in remote rural areas, but eventually there will be nobody to buy anything at all. I am glad the noble Lord opposite is agreeing with me.

Now I go to another question, and that is, what should we do? I am going to ask my noble friend Lord Sandford what the situation is regarding fuel tax, but I gather the tax on stage services is now 2s. 6d. If it were taken away altogether, it would mean a relief of 2½d. per passenger mile, and that would mean a very great deal to the rural transport industry. The National Bus Company, which has grown up in the last thirty years, has done an excellent job, which one would not like to see taken away from the rural areas, but I am afraid the time has now come when perhaps it would be opportune for the services to go back to independents. I do not say that because I am speaking from this side of the House, but because small, independent corn-panics can run more cheaply; therefore it would be much better.

That brings me to the subject of rural bus grants. I must congratulate the Labour Government for the part the Transport Act 1968 has played. I was in hot disagreement about drivers' hours, a matter about which I shall say a little later, but the Transport Act gave grants for rural bus services. Unfortunately we had to wait a very long time for an explanatory memorandum from the honourable member the Minister of Transport, Mr. Fred Mulley, but it finally came. Here I must congratulate the County of Devonshire, who appointed an information officer, or the equivalent, to deal with the problem. They were far ahead of anyone else in the country in trying to reach a solution in this field. Rural bus grants are a necessary evil. We do not like to have grants, but even if the National Bus Company were relieved by independents of some of its services, which I believe it wants to be, grants would still be necessary.

I should like to make a suggestion to the Minister about season tickets, because they might afford a solution. I have talked oil this matter to one or two people in authority and they feel that it is a road which they might follow. If a village could produce a sufficient number of people and a certain amount of money to supply a viable, service, people could buy monthly, quarterly or, preferably, yearly season tickets. Probably most people could afford only monthly or quarterly tickets. But a bus service would then be able to run and could make a profit on any chance trade which came along, and that money could help keep down the cost of the season tickets in the following year—always provided that we did not get too much inflation, which I very much doubt.

My noble friend Lady Berkeley, in her excellent maiden speech, mentioned minibuses. I agree with her only partly here, because independent operators generally like a vehicle in which to take out parties in the evening. However, there are one or two companies in various parts of the country which run mini-buses, especially in the thinly-populated areas of Scotland and Wales. In practically every county in England there are thinly-populated areas. In Surrey, Suffolk and Essex there are thinly-populated areas which have to be served, just as much as the desert areas of mid-Wales and parts of Scotland.

I am going to wind up this rather incoherent speech by saying that I hope that this Government in the next five years will solve the problem of drivers' hours. I was hotly against the Transport Act 1968, which cut drivers' hours. It was done in the best interests of the Party opposite, who thought it was the best way of keeping down accidents, but there is no evidence whatsoever that driving for long hours causes accidents. Indeed, it has been proved that one becomes safer after the first four hours' driving. I did an experiment in the Summer Recess of 1968 which I have mentioned previously. I should like the Government to look at this problem.

During the Second Reading of the Shops (Sunday Trading) Bill, we heard a good deal about people working weekends. Weekend work is very unpleasant, but one sometimes has to do it for the good of the community. Sunday early turn on the buses was not too bad, because there were the Sunday papers and the crosswords and one was going to be off by lunch time; but the late turn was perfectly hideous, because the whole day was absolutely ruined. One realised that instead of going for a walk or seeing a friend one had to have a sandwich, walk down to the end of the road, get into the bus and chug it away, perhaps for only a few sweet old ladies. There were very few people about and it was a perfectly miserable day. One does not wish that on anybody. But I hope that in the next five years, by some means or other, perhaps by some method of payment, the Government will solve the problem of shift work, which disrupts family life. If shift work did not do that, I might still be driving a bus now. Once again, I thank the noble Earl for raising this most important Question.

9.12 p.m.


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will forgive me for intervening. I am grateful to the noble Earl for raising this issue, but I make profound apologies for not being here at the beginning. As a countryman who for many years lived in the wilds of Wales, and for thirty or more years has lived in the most rural parts of Staffordshire, I am grateful for this opportunity to trespass on your Lordships' hospitality and kindness for two minutes in order to say something about this subject.

I had the privilege of knowing my late right honourable friend Stephen Swingler, who was Minister of State for Transport and did a magnificent job of work on this issue. I nodded my head in agreement with practically everything which the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, said about transport in rural areas. It was Kipling who uttered the axiom that transport is civilisation. One of the most steadying influences on this country's phrenetic life to-day, the steadiness which is necessary for a balanced view of life, comes very often from the countryman in the remotest parts of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

I wish people would realise that in the rural areas to-day probably nine people out of every ten still cannot afford, and in some cases would not want to afford, the luxury of a motor car. When you have a county hospital some 30-odd miles away and the old gentleman or the old lady cannot visit their life partner after years of helping to build the countryside because there is no country bus, but must depend on the local vicar or somebody who has a car for their kindness in transport, you realise that the time has come to look at rural transport. I shall not trespass on your Lordships' time to make a lengthy and deep argument, but I sincerely hope that, wherever the authority may be, and whatever Government are in power, this little debate to-night is given the attention of which it is really worthy, inasmuch as there is still a fundamental necessity to get cheap and good transport between rural areas and the focal points of our cities.

I do not want to go into the economics of this question. The aridity of the economists sometimes breaks my heart, but there are more things in life than economics. It is the joy of living and the radiance of the human being which matters. This our country folks are sometimes missing in the very simple way that even to get to market once a week is often more difficult than the city dweller believes. Therefore, though I may not have listened to what must have been constructive, cogent and pungent arguments about this, may I add my voice in support of this little debate that has taken place to-night?

9.16 p.m.


My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes. The noble Lord who has just sat down has really said, basically, what I wanted to say. Sitting here in your Lordships' House it is very difficult to realise that, stuck out in the middle of nowhere on a dark night, there are people who have literally no means of transport other than their legs or the kindness and goodness of heart of their neighbours. They are dependent on one bus a week to be able to do their shopping. If they want to go to visit anybody in hospital, they may have to walk anything from three to five miles to get a bus to take them to a hospital 17 miles away, and then walk the same distance back to their homes. The only alternative is to get a kindly neighbour to take them to the bus and fetch them back, or to get a taxi—and the expense of that is quite beyond some elderly people living in these country districts at the moment.

Due to economies which have been going on, the state of the rural roads is now getting appalling. In areas where I live grass is growing up in the middle of the roads; ditches are cleaned out only once a year; and verges encroach on the roads. These verges are not cut back, and this makes it practically impossible for any bus of a normal size to get down the road. In any event, I am not of the opinion that in these country districts what is required is a 35-seater bus. I am very much with the noble Baroness when she says that what is required is a minibus. I am also of the opinion—and I trust that this point will be considered—that the people who run these minibuses should not be the bus companies situated in Birmingham, Nottingham and similar places. I believe that power should be given to some local person in the centre of the rural district to organise these minibuses to connect with the main bus services.

We need to work from within the rural districts to the outside, and not have the outside coming in; because if you do that the chap who is coming in on a snowy day says, "To hell with this! I am not going down that hill to collect the poor vicar who is waiting to go to see his wife in Kidderminster: I am off home. The road is dangerous". Who is to say that it is not, except the poor vicar who is standing at the bottom and can see cars going up and down? It is entirely a matter for the rural life of the country to be allowed to organise itself. The present Government are all for making people organise themselves. There are people within country districts who, I am convinced, given the opportunity, would run a very reasonable bus service to connect up with the main bus services. All I can hope is that this question of mini-buses will be given very serious consideration.

The Question deals with rural communications, but as the hour is late I will not go on to the second point which I think comes under communications, the subject of telephones. But certainly it is my view that the telephones in rural districts of this country are an appalling disgrace. There is barely a house in the area in which I live where the nearest public telephone is not at least a mile and a half away. On rainy, dark, snowy nights how can one expect some poor, unhappy, elderly pensioner to leave her home and walk a mile and a half to telephone? Or she may have to go half a mile over dirty fields to a farmer's house to do so. I feel very strongly for these elderly pensioners, and people in the country generally, on the subject of telephones. They should be enabled to have telephones to call for help if necessary. They are people; they need help. If you drive down a motorway you may see every few yards a sign "S.O.S. Telephone". We put out hundreds of telephones to save the motor car; but not for people, not for the elderly person who needs an S.O.S. telephone—a telephone which could be treated solely as an S.O.S. telephone. I think that the telephone is a vital part of the communication. Communications are between people; so that people in trouble can call for help to other people. I think it needs a great deal of consideration. My Lords, I apologise for going on for so long at this hour; but I feel that this is a matter which needs far more consideration and far more debate than we are able to give it at this hour and at short notice.


; My Lords, may I intervene for one moment? I should not like this debate to pass without a word of very warm congratulation from this Bench to the noble Baroness, Lady Berkeley, on her maiden speech. She spoke with such deep, personal knowledge of local problems, and with such tremendous clarity; and above all—and this is what pleased the House—she spoke with such deep sincerity that I hope she will not keep us waiting for quite so long before she speaks again. We shall all look forward to hearing her more often.

9.23 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Berkeley, from this position on her maiden speech. She said that she was not in the habit of making speeches; one would not have guessed that. I hope that she will now get into the habit of making speeches and that we shall hear her many times again from to-day onwards. May I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Kinnoull on his stamina and persistence. If there were a tendency to allow this subject to become a Cinderella—which there is not—his persistence and advocacy on rural communications would ensure that this did not happen. We have not spent a lot of time—at least, with the exception of my noble friend Lord Cromartie, to whose points I will come later—talking about railway closures; but Lord Kinnoull asked me some specific questions.

In answer to those, I can say that since the effect of Lord Beeching's plan came into operation in 1964 there have been 85 railway closures in rural areas out of a total of 315 over the country at large. Set against that, in 1970 there were 235 rural services being grant-aided, of which 150 were serving rural areas, at a cost to the Exchequer of £30 million. On the particular case of the Kyle line raised by my noble friend Lord Cromartie, all I can say is that I hope that his eloquence will be deployed at the inquiry which, I believe, is yet to be held into the closure itself. As the subject is a matter of inquiry, he will understand if I do not comment on it further now.

My noble friend Lord Kinnoull asked a question about the possibilities of extending the role of the transport users' consultative committees. Their statutory role is a fairly narrow one, and legislation would be needed to extend it. But that is not to say that it might not sometimes be a considerable help in particular areas if those people who serve on transport users consultative committees were to bring their special knowledge and experience to bear in a private capacity, or in a collective private capacity, in making representations about local road transport needs to the Traffic Commissioners. I hope that the suggestion my noble friend has made will commend itself in appropriate places, but I cannot give any promises to him about legislative action to give statutory power to what he was proposing.

The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, asked me about fuel tax. All I can say is that that is primarily a matter for my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in due course. On the other hand, there was considerable interest regarding rural buses and bus services, and I will deal with them at rather greater length. The fact of the matter is, as we all know, that the rural bus services are supported by profits made on the urban routes; but the urban profits are being eroded and have been in many cases, by mounting costs and the continued loss of passengers. The bus companies are in the situation where they must find alternative sources of revenue to finance these rural services. The National Bus Company in particular ran many of the rural services. It has a statutory duty to break even financially, and therefore the subsidiary companies have approached the local authorities about the services which they propose to withdraw unless assistance can be given.

The local authorities have power to assist operators in providing rural bus services. The Secretary of State reimburses them to the extent of 50 per cent. of their expenditure on grants for this purpose. The remainder of their expenditure qualifies for rate support grant in the usual way. The local authorities can give assistance to many buses—a number of noble Lords were interested in this—and cars and taxis, or vehicles designed to carry passengers and goods, as well as buses, depending on where the best value for money lies.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, I can say that over 50 services are now being assisted with grants, and many others are under consideration, particularly in view of the National Bus Company's need to withdraw its most uneconomic rural services unless they are grant-aided. Services in the South-West, especially in Devon and Dorset—the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, mentioned this—are receiving support; and in parts of the North as well, such as those in the North Riding. In addition to this we have set up two pilot studies in Devon and West Suffolk, because we believe that it is necessary to take a new and urgent look at the problems facing people in the rural areas—this debate will have helped to focus attention on that point—to learn more about the diverse transport needs of people in rural areas such as those which have been mentioned.

For example, we shall be able, through the studies, to see what scope there really is for fare-paying passengers being carried on school buses, for locally organised car pooling arrangements and for other local services. The proposal made by Lord Teviot about season tickets could be tested and considered. The noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, and the noble Baroness, Lady Berkeley, suggested that postal mini-buses could be an answer. They are certainly one of the number of possibilities we are looking into. Four mini-bus services are already being operated by the Post Office in Montgomeryshire, Devon, Westmorland and East Lothian. As noble Lords will understand, the Post Office's first responsibility is to the carriage of mail and there is a problem of reconciling the postal requirements with the needs of the travelling public. That does not mean to say that it is not a possibility. I am pleased to say that the Post Office has agreed to co-operate with the Department in the two studies which I have just mentioned.

That brings me to the other question of the rural services of the Post Office, which the noble Earl introduced and other noble Lords followed up. As your Lordships will know, under the 1969 Act the Post Office has the duty to ensure that post offices are sufficient in number and are so placed as to give the best possible service to the community as a whole. They provide nearly 25,000 post offices altogether, of which 23,000—a very large proportion—are sub-post offices, often set up in a village shop. It is true that there has been a reduction in the number of sub-post offices, amounting to 200 over the past two years, but I think your Lordships will agree that in relation to the total of 23,000, this number, though significant, is not enormous. This is not the result of any deliberate policy or review aimed at reducing the number of post offices in rural areas. Post offices are closed either where the volume of business transacted indicates that there is no longer a public demand or where the sub-postmaster retires and no replacement can be found.

I am assured that the Post Office tries very hard to fill vacancies for sub-postmasters in rural areas and closes the office only as a last resort. If this does happen, they do all they can in other ways to alleviate possible hardship, by sending staff from the nearest head post office to a local hall for one or two days a week or occasionally by making a mobile post office available. Of course, these are costly ways of providing a service, but the Post Office shoulders this burden when the need arises. In rural areas, too, the delivery postman will sell stamps and postal orders on request, accept letters and parcels and help in other ways as he goes on his rounds.

I hope that this brief but, I trust, comprehensive reply to this debate will assure your Lordships that although the problems in the rural areas are difficult and not susceptible of any easy solution, they are being attended to by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and by those of us who are his colleagues.

9.33 p.m.


My Lords, if it were not that I consider this an important matter, as obviously did the noble Baroness, Lady Berkeley, in her most acceptable maiden speech, and my noble friend Lord de Clifford, I should not impose myself upon your Lordships at this late hour. But there is one point that I should like to re-emphasise. This is the point raised by my noble friend Lord Teviot about fuel tax. The noble Lord who spoke from the Box said that it was not a matter for him; and I agree that that may be the case. But nobody has mentioned the cost of the fares and the way they have gone up.

For some twenty years, until recently. I lived in a rural neighbourhood, and when my children were young it cost 4d. to go the three miles into the shopping centre, 7d. return. To-day the fare is 1s. 2d. each way. I know, as my noble friend Lord de Clifford said, from the number of lifts one gives to poor people, old-age pensioners and the like, that 2s. 4d. is a big sum for a three-mile trip on week-end shopping. I urge the Minister to bear this point in mind, and that the possibility of a reduction in fuel tax might enable small bus people to operate from centres, such as my noble friend mentioned, and make the service pay. The reason they have not done it is that they cannot make it pay. I will not weary your Lordships with the economic problems of running a small bus—the question of wages and the possibility of full loads.

There is one other point that has not been emphasised, and it is that on single-man buses there is inadequate provision for luggage, prams and the like. If somebody comes back from Australia, there is only one man on the bus and there is insufficient luggage room for a trunk. I think this is an important matter in relation to rural transport, and great suffering is being imposed on a great many good-hearted country people. My noble friend has had to wait to put down this Question, but I hope that this short debate will do something to alleviate the situation.