HL Deb 10 November 1971 vol 325 cc444-58

6.20 p.m.

LORD MOWBRAY AND STOURTON rose to move, That the Draft New Bus Grant (Increase of Rate and Extension of Period) Order 1971, laid before the House on October 18, 1971, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in seeking the approval of your Lordships' House to the New Bus Grant (Increase of Rate and Extension of Period) Order 1971, I should explain that the Order introduces two changes to the New Bus Grant Scheme. One is to double the rate of grant from 25 to 50 per cent. of capital costs; the other is to extend the life of the scheme by five years from 1975 to 1980. The grant is paid to operators on approved capital expenditure on new vehicles to be used on stage services. Section 32(4) of the Transport Act set the rate of grant at 25 per cent., and the length of the Scheme at seven years. Section 32(5) enables the Secretary of State to vary these terms provided that the Draft Order has been approved by the Resolution of both Houses.

The Scheme had three main aims: first, to encourage the conversion to one-man operation; secondly, to improve the comfort of travel; thirdly, to reduce the number of minor variations in design, which prevented manufacturers from stabilising their costs through longer production runs. The Scheme has made a good start, and this Order will, we hope, mean accelerated progress. It would be undesirable, however, to concentrate the orders for new vehicles in too short a period. It has become clear that seven years, the original length of the Scheme, is too short a time to realise all the objectives. Hence the proposal which I now make to extend the Scheme by five years to a total life of 12 years, which is the normal term of depreciation in the industry.

Design variations have been reduced by restricting grant to vehicles built to specified dimensional and other standards, with exceptions for experimental vehicles or where operational demands call for them. But we are now examining, with the joint committee of manufacturers and operators, whether a voluntary standardisation scheme might not operate more responsively and effectively. Higher costs and fewer passengers have meant pressures on operators who need help now if they are to carry out sensible renewal programmes. Payment of new bus grant is running at present at rather less than £7 million a year. Allowing for an upswing if the rate is increased, this could rise to about £16 million next year.

If your Lordships approve this Order, we estimate that the level of Government expenditure on the bus industry will increase to a total of about £40 million a year. It will enable the industry to continue its important modernisation programme, and of course help it in planning its investment programme over the next few years. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft New Bus Grant (Increase of Rate and Extension of Period) Order 1971, laid before the House on October 18, 1971 be approved.

—(Lord Mowbray and Stourton.)

6.25 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, for his clear explanation of this comparatively small Order, but at the same time an Order which might have considerable consequences upon the bus undertakings, particularly in the rural areas. This is a form of grant aid to the public transport industry and, as such, it is the taxpayers' contribution to an industry which cannot, without some assistance, provide the services the public requires. I regard this as a form of social grant, and social grants are absolutely necessary in this context and for the purposes of ensuring that rural transport does not die altogether.

I support the extension of the grants (which are made, of course, under the Act of the last Administration), for it is only by such social grants that town and country can be linked, as they must be linked, in many areas of the country. Certainly in rural Wales, which I know fairly well, one is constantly hearing threats of closing down existing rural bus services, and the consequent isolation of country from town. This is an isolation which is even greater than it used to be before buses were ever thought of. In those days we remember the country carrier with his horse "clip clopping" into the town at least once, or twice a week, and that formed a link between town and country. But, with the loss of the bus services, it can happen that the aged and the young, and those who do not happen to possess cars or have access to cars, cannot use the facilities of the town, and cannot get to and from the town. This is adding to the factors which are the cause of our rural areas—certainly in Wales—to a large extent dying. This is a tragedy, and I welcome this Order for the simple reason that I believe that it will help in ensuring a continuation of some at least of the bus services.

The Minister told us that the grants are at present running at something under £7 million a year, and I gather from what the Minister of Transport said in the other place the day before yesterday that this increase will add to the amount being spent by the taxpayer on these grants, which will rise to somewhere in the neighbourhood of £16 million a year by 1972. This is a lot of money, but I am bound to ask how much of the additional 25 per cent. of grant—namely, the £9 million difference between the £7 million and the £16 million—will be swallowed up in the increased cost of buses. These costs have gone up considerably, and are going up all the time, and I am wondering whether the £9 million that I am asking about will be net gain to the services that we have in mind. Of course I realise that the whole of the £9 million, or the whole of the £16 million, will not go to the rural services; it will indeed go to all bus services, because it is a sort of capital injection into the industry as a whole. I am bound to admit that my main interest here is with the rural bus services. Clearly, if the net gain to the operator is very small, we shall see a continuation of the closing down of unprofitable services to the districts where the rural areas have to be linked to the town. As I understood it from the Minister of Transport in 1968, the purpose of these grants was, first, to assist standardisation of approved types of buses; and, secondly, to use available labour and increase productivity, especially by means of the extension of the use of oneman operated buses. May I ask the noble Lord, when he comes to reply, to tell us whether and to what extent those purposes have been fulfilled? Have they in fact produced, or are they producing, a standardisation of buses, which the then Minister said would be something worth while? Also, has there been a considerable extension of the one-man buses, particularly, of course, in the rural areas?

The final thing I would ask arose from something which I remember the noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl, said when he was speaking in the Committee stage of the Transport Bill in 1968. He said that for some parts of Scotland we really want buses of the 12- to 15-seat types. He said that this was essential because in Scotland, with these vast areas where the distances are so great and the number of people to be carried are so small, they really need buses of that type in order to keep the rural areas alive. I wonder whether the noble Lord can tell us if there has been an extension of the building, as a result of the original subsidy and its continuation over the years since 1968, of that type of vehicle?

I end by welcoming the extension of the period, and I certainly welcome the increase in the percentage grant. All I can hope is that they will serve the purpose which I am sure the Government have in mind, and which we certainly had in mind in 1968, of continuing the rural buses which can help to keep our rural areas alive.

6.30 p.m.


My Lords, may I add a brief word in support of what the noble Lord opposite has said; in particular, to his interest in the rural areas? May I also apologise to my noble friend Lord Mowbray for not being here at the beginning of his speech? I was trying to get a copy of the Order, but could not find one, either in the Peers' Lobby or in the Prince's Chamber. I was saved by the Table, and now have a copy in my hand. As the noble Lord opposite has said, it is most important that we should never forget at this time the problem of transport in the rural areas. It is far more critical now than it was a few years ago before, in the interests of efficiency, the railway lines were pulled up. Many hamlets which had a connection with their country town and wilh their county town up until a few years ago, now have none.

With regard to the question of vehicles for the roads, it is not enough to say, "We are providing a grant." The appropriate vehicle is frequently smaller than the so-called luxury coach. But the bus proprietors like a big luxury coach, because when it is not on normal routine services they can use it for more expensive and more profitable week-end tours. That applies particularly to the larger bus operators. Will my noble friend keep a close watch on how this is working out and, in particular, do what he can to encourage the small man in the rural areas to extend his services? I say that because he is the man upon whom these areas have to depend. I do not believe they will ever get the same service from bigger companies, who are gradually snuffing out the smaller family businesses in country districts. It sounds all very well here to say that there should be a larger grant, but I hope that is not going to mean that we have a greater number of those very large and very expensive buses which are not really appropriate to the extremely vital need which the noble Lord opposite was describing.

6.32 p.m.


My Lords, may I begin by declaring an interest, as joint proprietor of a local bus service, Orpington Rural Transport, which runs a service between Orpington, Biggin Hill and New Addington in the outer fringes of Greater London? It may not seem a rural area to your Lordships, but I can assure you that it has not been adequately provided with bus services by London Transport—though through no fault of their own. The reason is that the roads on which our vehicles operate are not suitable for the larger buses which London Transport operate on their regular scheduled routes. Some years ago, when we applied to the London Transport Executive to run smaller buses on these roads, they gave their consent. We started operating and we have been managing to survive for a number of years, although under great financial difficulties. That is why I welcome this Order, which has been laid before your Lordships' House, to increase the capital grant available for the purchase of new vehicles.

But I would say to the noble Lord who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, and who asked to what extent the purposes of the 1968 Act have been fulfilled, that the answer is that they have been fulfilled only partially. That is because as these grants have been introduced—both the capital grant for new vehicles and the fuel grant which operators of buses receive—costs have also gone up. It is inevitable that operators of rural bus services have had to pay wage increases pail passewith the rise in costs generally; that they have had to pay increases in the cost of new vehicles; that they have had to pay increases in the maintenance charges levied on them by the garages. So the help which has been available to them under the Transport Act 1968 has been sufficient only to keep pace with the effects of inflation.

I would say to the Government that although this help of a 50 per cent. grant on new vehicles is extremely welcome it will not be enough to enable certain rural bus services to survive in face of competition from the private motor car and from other forms of transport which are increasingly encroaching on the previously held preserves of the bus companies. I think that we in this country must make up our minds whether we want rural bus services or not. Do we want services to be available to the old-age pensioner who lives in an isolated village and does not possess a motor car, but who wants to get to the nearest town or to the hospital or to the doctor's surgery? Or do we want those old people, and perhaps mothers with young children and others who do not possess motor cars, to be dependent on the charity of their neighbours to give them lifts in a motor car as and when they can? Or do we simply decide, as a matter of social policy, that we will maintain these public services and give them whatever assistance is necessary out of public funds, to enable them to maintain the services which they are operating at the moment? I agree with the noble Lord opposite who said that in many cases one does not need the large vehicles operated by the major companies and holding 30 to 40 or more passengers. One needs small vehicles able to transport 12, 15 or 16 passengers, and one has to try to derive a modest income from that kind of service. Certainly that is the case in our own area. We could not operate with 30 to 40 seat vehicles on the small lanes in my area, because the Metropolitan Police would not allow us to do so. We have to submit proposals to them, and they say whether the vehicles are suitable for running over narrow roads. I think the restriction is to 7 ft. 9 ins., and as we have vehicles which are 7 ft. 6 ins. wide we just manage to come within their criteria. We can transport schoolchildren to their schools; we can take to the station people who are going to work in London; we can take old people to visit their relatives in hospital. In the service that we operate we have catered for the needs of upwards of 60,000 passengers a year who are not allowed for in the plans of London Transport. But I say again that one must not blame London Transport for that, because it is not their job to provide these small services for limited numbers of people on routes which are not suitable for their regular vehicles.

Nevertheless, I think that something more is required than an increase in the capital grant for new vehicles, valuable though this provision is. I believe that the Government have done their best to persuade local authorities that they should support rural bus services, but so far with very limited effect. If I may say so, I think that local authorities should listen to the exhortations of Government. They should be prepared to take advantage of the facilities that are available to them to subsidise these services to the extent of 50 per cent. of their running costs, so as to provide a service for the inhabitants of the area for which they were elected. If this service is costing only about £1 million a year, that is a very small sum of money compared with the £16 million which has been quoted as the total subsidies allocated by the Government for the next financial year. Bearing in mind that, of that £1 million, the local authorities will get back 50 per cent. from the Government, and that of the 50 per cent. which they have to support the bulk will be provided by the rate-support grant in rural areas, local authorities should be given a good "kick in the pants" by the Government to make them see what further help they can provide.

The other point that I want to raise before I sit down—and I am sorry if this is not wholly germane to the Order in front of us—is that in looking at the capital grants which are provided under this Order, and which, as I have said, are extremely valuable, one should not forget that most local bus services are not labouring under the difficulty of providing new vehicles. Their principal handicap is in meeting running costs from one day to the next. This is where the fuel grants, which were also provided under the 1968 Act, as I understand it, have been immensely valuable. But the effect of those fuel grants has been whittled away, not only as taxation has increased but also as the charges made by garages in respect of maintenance, and indeed the charges they make for fuel, have increased to meet the expenses which they themselves have to incur. It is natural and inevitable that, as they pay more money to the attendants at the petrol pumps, they have to add something on to the charges that they make for the fuel.

It would have been most desirable if this capital grant had been accompanied by some increase in the assistance given by the Central Government towards the running costs of those services which the bus companies have to meet. But as a second best to that, I hope—and I would ask the noble Lord who is to reply to consider this matter—that some additional pressure can be exerted on local authorities to make use of the grants already available to them. After all, this 50 per cent. is a very generous concession, and much of the 50 per cent. which they have to bear comes back to them in the form of rate-support grant. If we could combine this increased use of the grants with the increase from 25 per cent. to 50 per cent. in the Order currently under consideration, I believe that many of the rural bus services at present under threat of closure would be enabled to survive. And the result would be that people who cannot afford cars but who need to get from their villages to the central locations where they shop, visit the hospitals, visit their doctors and so on, would have the benefit of transport facilities which are so desperately needed in the rural areas of our country.

6.42 p.m.


My Lords, naturally I do not intend to oppose this grant at all. On the other hand, one cannot help drawing comparisons when considering what is really taking place. One remembers the wholesale closure of railway branch lines and the British Transport Commission agreeing to subsidise a wide variety of bus services in order to obtain consent for the closure of those branch lines. Applications were then made to the various traffic commissioners, these rural bus service routes and others were agreed, and they continued to run until the end of the subsidy from the railway undertaking. It is from that time onwards, since we have been helping these "lame ducks" on, that we have been getting requests for various types of subsidy from public funds. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has mentioned the considerable pressure that is now being exerted upon local authorities to grant subsidies out of the rates to keep these various rural services running. So we have this type of subsidy, lifting the grant for new buses being built over this 12-year period from 25 to 50 per cent. This is all part of a pattern of subsidy coming from public funds because successive Governments have refused to face up to a comprehensive transport policy.

Not only do we get it in the case of buses, but we get it in the various services. Our roads are being cluttered up with a lot of heavy vehicles carrying goods which should be carried by rail. Railway lines are being closed down. I am sure many of my friends in the North know what is taking place with regard to the mass of timber which is now being used and is being carried by road, cluttering the roads up. All this because we, as politicians, have refused to face up to a comprehensive system. It is rather difficult to bring in the whole of this problem under this particular Order, but it indicates how such piecemeal action is causing such dreadful loss both in cash and in manpower to the economy of the country. While this is a necessary Order for the time being in order to assist in a particular direction, it is just one more indication of how foolish we really are. I express the hope that we may look a little further ahead still. There are approximately 15 million motor vehicles on the roads to-day. At the turn of the century, there will be 30 million. What will then be the position? Are we going to continue with this piecemeal type of action, or how soon shall we face up to the real economics involved in that national transport system which is essential for all?

6.47 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the four noble Lords who have spoken, three of whom have welcomed the Order. As one would expect from a great railwayman and from a Yorkshireman like Lord Popplewell, he has expressed disappointment that the railways are not mentioned. But, of course, this is a bus Order, and the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, must not expect us always to deal with railways when we are dealing with buses. The point that he has made, though, is taken. My right honourable friends in the Department are very well aware of this.

Dealing with the noble Lord's immediate point first, I think the point is that buses have to exist, trains have to exist, and we know that the motor car does exist. He himself has pointed out that the number of motor cars has increased. In twenty years we have gone up from 2 million to some 11 million. In the same period, the bus passenger-miles operated have gone down from 1,600 million to 900 million. Obviously, a car equation and a bus equation have a relevance. But on the immediate matter of local trains and local buses, there is the point that a small train has to carry something like 120 people, and it is going to cost over £1 a mile at least, probably; whereas a small bus will probably cost only 10p to 25p a mile according to the way it is run and the staff involved.

On the matter of the capital expenditure grant, about which the noble Lord, Lord Champion, inquired—the money which will go into the till from this grant —I should like to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that it is not limited. The figure of £7 million is the present level of the grant. If the bus operators come and ask for more, they will get more. It was 25 per cent.; it will be 50 per cent. So it is not actually a limitation. This money which is being given will take time to work through in revenue and I do not think one can expect to see immediate effects. The hope is that employers will be able now to stabilise their prices because they can plan for the future.


My Lords, may I ask one short question? Is grant attracted by buses of foreign manufacture or is it only a question of those that are manufactured in these Islands?


My Lords, my impression is that it applies to British manufactured buses; but no doubt before I sit down I shall have confirmation of this.


My Lords, this is important; a great deal of taxpayers' money is involved.


I take the noble Lord's point.


My Lords, I think that approval has to be given by the Minister of the Environment for any vehicles which qualify for the 50 per cent. aid. It would be perfectly simple for them to say that only buses manufactured in this country will qualify. In fact, the only buses that have been approved at the moment are those which have been manufactured in this country.


My Lords, I thought that was the case; but if we find a suitable bus which our operators want, I believe (and I can now tell the noble Lord this) they would also be able to get a grant for a foreign import. All the new buses which are approved are eligible for this grant. The fact remains that in the past, as Lord Avebury pointed out, they have been mainly British. What has been happening in the bus manufacturing industry has been "boom and slump". What was the intention of the Government of noble Lords opposite and what is now our intention is to continue to try to even out this "boom-slump" on to an even keel so that manufacturers can look ahead with more confidence.

The noble Lord, Lord Champion, inquired about the success and effects of standardisation. The Joint Committee of Manufacturers and Operators have told us that the inclusion of dimensional standards in the bus grant scheme have brought benefits to both operators and the bus chassis and body manufacturers; and that this assists the interchangeability of chassis and body design which we are now exploiting with the Committee. There is a possibility of a voluntary scheme which should perhaps be more effective. Lord Champion also inquired what success, if any, we have had on the one-man operated bus. The conversion of single-deck buses is expected to be completed by 1972–73. Many existing vehicles were wholly suitable but progress on double-deck buses is slower because there are more reasons for their unsuitability and more difficulties of conversion. But we think that possibly 1980 will be about the earliest date on which we expect to see all fleets on this basis.

Several noble Lords, among them Lord Champion and Lord Inglewood, discussed the point about the small, twelve-seater to fifteen-seater buses and whether they were eligible for grant. My noble friend the Duke of Atholl raised this question earlier. I know that it does not come under the standard Specification; but where it is considered that its operation is suitable, my right honourable friend has already given permission and will do so in future. These standard specifications are meant to be helpful and where they are for good purposes or for experimental reasons the Government have every intention of being flexible.


My Lords, I think it important to underline the fact that the Government have approved one sixteen-seater vehicle—the only one about which I know—for grant purposes. The demand for this particular vehicle is great, but it has been eligible for grant for the last year and is available on the market.


My Lords, my right honourable friend is flexible and he is prepared, where the operation is suitable, to give approval. The licence problem is not the subject of this scheme, but I think all noble Lords will recognise that he is considering alteration in the licensing scheme. My noble friend Lord Inglewood asked about long-distance "fancy" buses operating for special purposes being eligible for grant. As the Order states clearly—and I apologise if the Printed Paper Office did not have enough copies—it applies to a vehicle which is wholly or mainly a stage carrier. This will relieve the noble Lord's mind. The grant will not be wasted on people organising trips to, say, Venice or Marseilles. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has shown himself to be a "bus man". I knew that we had one in Lord Teviot, and I am glad that the Liberal Party has another. With regard to where he said he had an interest—in the Orpington, Biggin Hill, New Addington area—I have a suspicion that this may come under the Bromley Council which is under the umbrella of the G.L.C. Under Section 34 of the 1968 Act, I do not think this is applicable. The authorities concerned are always able to help operators under the penny-rate scheme, but the local authorities have to decide whether to do so.

I would support Lord Avebury when he said that some rural bus services are not making a profit but they are considered necessary by young people and old people and by married women whose husbands take their cars to work. All these are people who need a service in villages and in the country—and the more "countrified" the more they need it. This is where these things are needed. The authorities can choose a small bus service, a 12-, 15- or 16-seater. They do not have to have a large bus. They can help a bus operator when he comes to them. I emphasise (and I have said this before) that we can only hope that the authorities who have the power will seize the opportunity. The last Government gave them the chance to do so. We have extended this further. It is up to all noble Lords who have influence in their local councils to bring pressure where they can in the interests of the people in the area. I should like to thank Lord Avebury for that suggestion. I do not think there are any points that I have missed and I should like to recommend that the Order before the House be approved.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at seven o'clock.