HC Deb 04 July 2000 vol 353 cc19-25WH 11.30 am

On resuming—

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

First, may I say how grateful I am to be able to raise in the Chamber the issue of transport in south-west Norfolk and, by extension, in rural areas throughout the country? The Minister will be aware that petrol prices and, in particular, the Government's imposition of higher and higher levels of tax on road fuel are at the top of the public's agenda. The Sun today is full of advice for the Minister, which it couches in the immortal words "Get It Down Brown." It is supposed to be positive and constructive. More seriously, on 2 July The Sunday Times pointed out that, since the general election, motorists have been hit with an £8 billion hike in taxes, which is equivalent to a 4p in the pound rise in income tax. Annual excise duties on petrol have risen by more than £6 billion, value added tax receipts from petrol have risen by more than £1 billion and road tax has increased by £700 million, all of which adds up to nearly £8 billion.

I know that the Minister will avoid giving the impression that fuel price rises are due to more than increases in the price of crude oil, but the public know where much of the blame lies. It will help his credibility if he does not try to blame the previous Government, although he will probably do that. His Government have been in power for the past three years and the public hold them responsible for the tax increases that have made petrol—at £4; a gallon—the most expensive in Europe.

I want to raise the results of a survey that I recently conducted on transport in south-west Norfolk. To date, 500 people have responded, although I expect many more to add their views. The Minister will be interested to know that nearly 100 per cent. of respondents believe that the Government should pay more attention to transport issues, such as railways, road improvements and traffic. Some 90 per cent. support people who are protesting against the rise in petrol taxes and 80 per cent. believe that more should be done to encourage the use of public transport. Interestingly, 62 per cent. do not—because they cannot—use local bus services, which are inconvenient, do not exist or do not reach their villages. The Minister should note the significant statistic that only 31 per cent. of pensioners are able to use concessionary bus fares in Norfolk because of the lack of services.

The Minister will point out—justifiably—that Norfolk has received a substantial grant for the development of rural bus services. It certainly has. I welcomed the grant when it was announced, but I also explained that the rural economy is so diverse that no transport system could cope with all its needs. Moreover, the way in which the grant was established militated against the sensible deployment of the initial £1.5 million hat Norfolk received.

In a briefing note produced for me last week by the county council, Andrew Harding, the officer in charge of such matters, said: The grant was set up, quite properly, with conditions to prevent local authorities being tempted to substitute grant for local funding of established bus services. This can lead, however, to the situation where, due to local authorities budgets being fully committed, an established and well-used bus service could be denied the full financial support it requires, whilst a new RBSG service carrying fewer passengers is maintained. In the interests of obtaining Best Value, overall more flexibility would be desirable. The county council has done its best under the rather unsatisfactory conditions imposed on it by the Government for the use of this subsidy, but the results of those initial requirements have not gone unnoticed by the public. The secretary of the Watton and district chamber of commerce, Martin Anscombe, wrote to the director of planning and transportation at county hall last autumn. He said: I have now been asked by this Chamber's Committee to express the view of members in the strongest possible terms. That is simply that the provision…as far as Watton is concerned, is a complete waste of public money. There are now some 130 additional buses per week through Watton…Informal observations indicate that the new services are so far very little used, with large single decker coaches arriving and departing empty or nearly so. The effect of the grant has been the setting up of new services on a somewhat scattergun approach with no time for consultation or a thorough examination of either need or effect. I raised this matter in the House last autumn. I am dismayed to find that the county council is still asking for more flexibility, to enable it not to waste this publicly provided subsidy for the rural bus service. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point or undertake to consider it. The most acute anxiety about rural transport—it has now reached crisis point—is that no public transport system can provide for the diverse needs of a rural area in which there are several population centres to which people travel for services and work. Not only do some people in such areas have more than one job, but it is by no means uncommon for one family to need two or even three cars in order to get to work. The fact is that people in rural areas need cars. For them, cars are not a luxury. Whether they need to work, shop or to gain access to medical services or schools, they are being precisely and punitively targeted by the Government's fuel tax policy while at the same time being exhorted in the name of the environment not to use their cars.

The Minister might not want to take my word for it, so perhaps he would like to hear the comments of some constituents of mine who responded to my traffic survey. Mr. Green of Outwell said: It is ridiculous to keep putting tax on fuel hoping to try to get people to use public transport. Living in Outwell, I need my van for work, and to get places, and also to pick up my 2½ year old son and to take him back. I could not do that using a bus. I am a self-employed plasterer and work on different jobs all over the place, eg. one day I might be at Emneth, the next day at Gedney Hill, then maybe Walton Highway. The Minister may want to listen to the following point: I do not think that taking my cement mixer, buckets, levels, straight edges board and stands and trowels on a bus and then walking four to ten miles to the house I am plastering is a practical idea… Remember this is not London where a bus or taxi comes past every two minutes. So putting tax on fuel is disgusting. Remember an increase in fuel means everything else has to go up. Those are the words of a self-employed man.

Mr. Middleton of Bradenham describes a different problem. He says: I am a disabled person. I have a motability car, which costs me just under £40 weekly. There are no buses in this area that will take a wheelchair. To go anywhere I must use the car. The nearest rail station is 20 miles away. My car still costs me £40 weekly even if I don't use it, so it is cheaper by far to use it all the time, rather than just to go to the station and pay fares on top of the £40. I am, as most people are, quite concerned about pollution, but I feel that the Government is treating us rural persons very unfairly. Putting more tax on fuel will not bring the train or bus closer to my home… I feel I am really being got at. I am an OAP with a non-elastic income. Mr. Wilkinson of Watlington writes: In rural areas such as South West Norfolk, public transport is not an effective mode of transport, especially when we live out of town… We need our own transport, so Mr. Prescott's idea that there is no need for more than one car per family is totally out of touch with what is going on in the real world… I live in Watlington near the railway station, and I work at the power station at King's Lynn, which is on the south side of the town. To use public transport, I would have to walk a quarter of a mile to the Angel pub to catch the bus, travel all round the houses for 3 quarters of an hour, reach King's Lynn, then what? How do I get to the power station when it is not on my bus route or any other? Ah yes walk again for another mile or so. Totally unacceptable and unreasonable, after over an hours journey I can't get to work, assuming they don't cancel the service that day without telling anybody. Mr. Birt of Watton writes as follows: I heard that the Deputy Prime Minister had spoken on the question of transport and suggested that drivers over the age of 70 should stop driving. I gave that great thought as I am 89 years of age (still a good driver). I decided to give up driving. Result, I am tied to Watton due to a bad bus service. Should I go to King's Lynn or Thetford I cannot return home after 6 o'clock. Mr. Birt's letter speaks volumes for the life and vigour of people of 89.

Mrs. Gyll Bradley writes: I am a single mum on an extremely low income, yet I have to run a car to get my daughter to school or to go shopping. The nearest town is Wisbech and we have no regular services at all. The nearest train service is 10 miles away, so I need a car to get to the station. When I lived in London I didn't need a car and used the transport system—cheaper I hear than most up here. The petrol is also cheaper in London—why? They need cars less and yet it costs them less to run one! Cycling is fine in Cambridge, but locally it can be very dangerous, the roads are narrow and bendy and people drive too fast and there's no one around to stop them doing so. There is an increase of folks driving without tax and insurance around here, can you wonder though, some weeks I have to go without important items just to make sure that the car is roadworthy and legal. I would love to ditch the thing and get a bus—but they are so rare we take photos of them and put them in our "Endangered Species" album!! We should remind ourselves that, at the 1996 Labour conference, the Deputy Prime Minister promised immediate benefits for the travelling public as a result of the Government's transport policies. The result has been that people in rural areas, who have to use their cars because of the nature of the economy and because of the deficiencies of the public transport system, are being penalised because they live in rural areas. That cannot be fair. In particular, people at work, the self-employed, the disabled, elderly people and people with families have been accurately targeted for punitive and regressive tax treatment—not the picture of the inclusive Britain that we were promised before the general election.

The Minister will certainly say that there have been international increases in the price of crude oil, and that is true. He might also say that the previous Government introduced the fuel escalator, but he cannot deny that our petrol is the most expensive in Europe because we have the highest fuel tax in Europe. For every £20 spent at the petrol pump, £17 is taken in tax. Meanwhile, according to figures from the House of Commons Library, planned spending on transport will fall by 12 per cent. between 1997–98 and 2001–02. To add insult to injury, only 14 per cent. of the £36 billion being taken from road users every year is going back into road improvements.

In my constituency it is not uncommon for people to have to take a round trip of 14 miles to visit a general practitioner. They might have a round trip of 24 miles to go to the nearest supermarket, and to go to the nearest hospital might require a trip of 36 miles there and back. I give those figures because they are the distances travelled by people from the village where I live. Of course, older people must quite frequently make trips to the GP, to pick up medication. Trips to the hospital may be necessary, perhaps to visit older relatives. Although everyone tries to support local shops, they must from time to time visit the local supermarket.

The Government's tax policy on petrol, therefore, has an impact on all those people, who do not have a choice. They do not have a choice of sensible public transport that suits their needs, as my constituents have shown in their comments. Nor would it be possible for a public bus service, for example, to provide for every need. I accept that. However, the excuse that is given is that petrol tax increases are possible because we have a viable alternative in a bus or train system. I have tried to show that that alternative does not exist. My constituents must use their cars and, therefore, be taxed.

This tax policy has an impact on all people in rural parts of Britain. People are being unfairly and punishingly taxed off the roads, for no fault of their own—merely because of where they live. We shall have reached a pretty pass if older people on a fixed income must calculate whether they can afford to go to the supermarket or the doctor. The Minister is, I know, a sensible and reasonable man. He has the great good fortune to live in a splendid part of London—Streatham—but that will not necessarily put him in a position to empathise with my constituents, and other people in rural Britain, over the plight to which they have been reduced. I recognise that he cannot today, at a stroke, say, with The Sun, "Get It Down Brown", but I want him to say that he has heard the pleas, which are genuine. They are the voices of my constituents, who speak from the heart about a state of affairs that some of them are beginning to find frightening. The Government will allow that to continue at their peril. Believe me, people in rural areas have had enough.

11.48 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on securing the debate. She has raised several important transport issues and explained their impact on her rural constituency. I am pleased with this opportunity to demonstrate the Government's commitment to improving transport and the quality of life of rural communities such as the one that she represents.

We set out our policy framework for transport in the integrated transport White Paper. We are taking further powers in the current Transport Bill and our forthcoming 10-year transport plan will set the investment framework for providing a modern transport system that will be accessible to everyone. Of course, I cannot give details of the plan today, but I am confident that it will represent a step change improvement in the way we meet transport challenges. It will enable us to implement solutions identified through our programme of multimodal studies of problem corridors; it will enable new rail infrastructure to be installed, more innovative and flexible bus services to be introduced, and additional investment to be made in the road network, particularly by means of much-needed bypasses. It will also enable the transport problems of rural communities and the effects of social exclusion to be tackled, and it will help us to give everyone a better choice in transport.

The forthcoming White Paper will set out the Government's vision for rural England. We have launched a discussion document, and have received more than 800 responses, which have been summarised and posted on the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions website. We expect the White Paper to focus on sustainable economic growth and regeneration in rural areas, access to services in rural areas and social exclusion, all of which are linked to transport. We shall consider the recommendations made by the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs as we continue our preparation of the White Paper.

I sympathise with the anxieties about petrol prices and fuel duty that were expressed by the right hon. Lady's constituents, but it is essential to place those concerns in context. First, the Government are reversing the previous Government's legacy of under-investment in transport with the massive £280 million of extra spending that was announced in this year's Budget. The Government are also investing in the country's public transport and road network, yet the previous Administration planned to cut the transport budget by £1 billion. Secondly, world oil prices are at an all-time high. We have seen steep increases in petrol pump prices. They have risen by 18p during the past 16 months, but less than 2p of that increase is due to this year's rise in fuel duty.

Mrs. Shephard

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hill

If the right hon. Lady will forgive me, she has left me relatively little time. I have much to say and little time to say it, but if the opportunity arises—I want first to say more about petrol price rises—I shall give way. I want first to make some progress.

I was about to point out that, although fuel duties rose in line with inflation in this year's Budget, it was the lowest increase in 11 years. The previous Administration introduced the fuel duty escalator in 1993 at 3 per cent. and then increased it to 5 per cent. This Government have abolished the fuel duty escalator. The fact is that fuel prices are lower now than they would have been had the escalator not been abolished.

Mrs. Shephard

Does the Minister accept that, since the general election, taxation on motorists has increased by £8 billion, which is the equivalent of 4p in the pound on income tax?

Mr. Hill

In real terms, motoring costs in 2000 are identical to those in 1970. The Government have achieved that by various policies, including cutting fuel duty, which I propose to deal with if I am given time to do so.

The Government were elected on a pledge to stick to the previous Administration's spending plans for the first two years. In the third year, we scrapped the escalator. We have also played our part in meeting the legally binding environmental targets agreed at Kyoto. The precise answer to the right hon. Lady is that, under the previous Government, car tax increased by £45 between 1993 and 1996. We have cut it by £55 on 4 million fuel-efficient cars. At the time of this year's Budget, the Automobile Association said: This is the first time drivers can take some heart from a Budget in over seven years. That covers the time during which the preceding Administration was in power. It is worth drawing attention to the fact that the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said in 1996 that the price of fuels is not set by Government. Any real-terms increase in fuel duties in the future will go directly towards transport spending in addition to the billions already invested in modernising Britain's infrastructure.

I shall give a practical example of the Government's commitment to transport infrastructure in dealing with developments on the A11 in the constituency of the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk. The A11 is a significant interregional route into East Anglia, but piecemeal improvements in past road-building programmes have resulted in congestion and safety problems, especially in the section that runs through the right hon. Lady's constituency. The Government's trunk road review of 1998 was a thorough review of the national road programme. That review was not held behind closed doors, unlike reviews carried out by the previous Administration, but gave communities, local authorities, businesses and transport and environmental groups the chance to have an input into the shape of the network and the type of improvements that should be made.

Completing the dualling of the A11 to give better access to the north and east was a high priority for the region. We inherited a wish-list programme of 147 schemes, including three for the A11. In 1998, we identified a targeted programme of 37 schemes that could be started within five years. One of those schemes was the dualling of the A11 between Roudham Heath and Attleborough. On 3 February, my noble Friend the Lord Whitty was able to announce that the start of construction on the Roudham Heath-Attleborough scheme had been brought forward to the beginning of 2001. At long last, a scheme that entered the national roads programme in 1985, and for which a preferred route was announced in 1990, will be under way. That is a practical example of the Government's commitment to the motorist in the right hon. Lady's constituency.

In the brief time left to me, I shall deal with the rural bus network, which the right hon. Lady mentioned. Norfolk's allocation of £1.6 million per year of rural bus subsidy grant was the highest in the country. We have recently announced that the funding will be extended for another three years until 2004. In addition, we awarded Norfolk a further £1 million through the rural bus challenge initiative. The bus subsidy grant has enabled 49 new services to be introduced in addition to those that operated before May 1998, several of which have performed very well. In 1999–2000, more than 500,000 passenger journeys were made using services provided through the grant. I am sorry to hear that a small number of services have had to be withdrawn, even after allowing 12 months for patronage to build up.

The rural bus subsidy grant has allowed a substantial number of new and useful services to be introduced and maintained, increasing opportunities and choice for the rural traveller. Norfolk county council says that the services that have benefited tend to be those that supply new links to training and work opportunities as well as to shopping and health care. In most parishes in the right hon. Lady's constituency, bus service provision has improved since the grants were first awarded. Parishes that remain below the county council's preferred level of service are a priority for action, and the extension for the rural bus grant will decrease the number of poorly served parishes.

I acknowledge that successful directly subsidised services have sometimes been abandoned in favour of those funded through the rural bus subsidy grant. The point has been made several times that the rules are inflexible. We set up the fund specifically for new services because we did not want the money to leak into other areas. Nor did we want people deliberately to reduce services in the hope of gaining access to the new funding. However, the extension of the grant for an additional three years should enable councils and operators to plan ahead with more certainty and will provide greater incentive for potential bus users to leave their cars at home. We do not want the grant to be used to maintain the existing network, as that would diminish the purpose for which it was designed. We have shown flexibility by moving from 1 May 1998 to 1 May 1999 the cut-off date for deciding whether an existing service can be supported. However, the important principle remains that the grant will be continued for the commissioning of new services. I am afraid that I cannot promise that we shall change that.

The rural bus challenge funding won by Norfolk county council has enabled the purchase of four new and fully accessible vehicles, and has allowed for the development of flexible feeder services to improve connections between rural areas and rail and bus interchanges. Those initiatives are in line with our integrated transport policies, will help to improve access for disabled persons, increase social inclusion and facilitate modal shift from the car.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)>

Order. Time is up.