HC Deb 14 March 2000 vol 346 cc24-30WH 11.30 am
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I am delighted to have secured this debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. Would hon. Members please leave the Chamber quietly? We have business to discuss.

Miss McIntosh

Thank you, Mr. Cook. As I was saying, I am delighted to have secured this debate on support for bus services in the Vale of York.

The Government paid lip service to improving public transport in their White Paper on the future of transport published about two years ago, entitled "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone". On page 40, the section dealing with more and better buses states: Buses are already the workhorses of the public transport system and in many parts of the country they are the only form of public transport. Increasingly they will become the focus of an efficient transport system that gets people to where they want to be quickly and comfortably, without having to rely on cars. But people will not switch from the comfort of their cars to buses that are old, dirty, unreliable and slow. Too often, buses have been treated and seen as 'second class' transport. It doesn't have to be like this and is certainly not the case in many other European countries. As part of the New Deal for transport, we want better buses—clean, comfortable and convenient. Bus lanes and other priority measures will help to get buses running on time. That was two years ago. One must contrast the lip service paid to the new deal for transport with what is happening on the ground in the Vale of York, where bus services are being reduced and, in some cases, withdrawn. I have corresponded with the Minister and his colleagues on these cases, and I hope that he will be able to respond in detail this morning.

The first case is the Haxby and Wigginton to York service. Routes 22 and 22A were withdrawn in spring 1999 and reinstated after constituents had expressed dismay and disappointment, and after I had expressed support for the services continuing. First York gave an assurance in February 1999 that, if the bus routes were changed again, a similar consultation exercise would take place. However, last summer, the bus routes were changed by First York without wide consultation. The services were withdrawn, having been reinstated.

There are now no direct services from Haxby and Wigginton to the hospital—which presents an acute problem for older people visiting relatives—or to the Theatre Royal or the station. That causes great inconvenience and, in some cases, distress to my constituents. First York made the point that journeys to the hospital and the theatre may be made via Fulford, which is an expanding community—as are Haxby and Wigginton. However, that service avoids the traffic problems and congestion on the Haxby road by bypassing it completely, which means that the journey time from Haxby is much greater, and in one case involves a change of buses. My constituents have expressed serious consternation about that.

I turn to the Linton-on-Ouse to York service. In January 2000, bus services from Linton to York were drastically reduced. The number of journeys to York was slashed from 13 a day to five, with only one bus running during the main part of the working day between 7.30 am and 5.30 pm. Local residents are now even more dependent on access to a car to get into York from Linton. The cuts highlight the fact that the Government have failed to deliver on the pledge that they gave as recently as two years ago to improve public transport services in rural areas. Linton is especially important because it is a Royal Air Force base. One constituent wrote to me saying that he is about to serve a four-month term in Kuwait, leaving his wife without access to a car. Mothers with families and older people are having to turn more and more to cars or taxis instead of the bus services to which they, rightly, believe they are entitled.

First York made no excuses for the cuts and simply stated that the current service is uneconomical because there is not enough local demand. Thanks to North Yorkshire county council, one bus service was reinstated and departs from Linton-on-Ouse at 11.10.

In correspondence dated 28 February this year, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), admitted that there is need for improvement in local bus services in many areas. He went on to promise to introduce measures to secure greater stability in bus services, primarily through quality partnerships, and to ensure that local authorities had more influence over the provision of public transport. He also promised to provide powers to enable local authorities to introduce bus quality contracts to give greater control over delivery of local bus services. Will the Minister verify which, if any, of the initiatives promised me by the Under-Secretary have been implemented in north Yorkshire?

I turn to the park-and-ride scheme at Rawcliffe. Despite severe opposition from residents—I also opposed it—the scheme was moved from the excellent, practical site at Clifton Moor to a greenbelt location. The opposition arose because it is one of the few remaining greenbelt sites at Rawcliffe. I said at the time that congestion on the A19 would increase, and there are record tailbacks beyond the roundabout at the Rawcliffe interchange with the bypass to York. At busy times, it can take 40 minutes for constituents to cross the roundabout. I and many hon. Members would like more park-and-ride schemes and more parking facilities to enable people to use the buses, but they should not be put in silly places where they cause increased congestion.

I pay tribute to North Yorkshire county council's wide consultation on public transport services. It demonstrates that the key to successful delivery of service in a rural area is through consultation, particularly with the parish councils, to ensure that the right bus arrives in the right place at the right time. North Yorkshire county council has an excellent record on spending public money responsibly. It is currently spending £1.68 million each year on public transport. Some of that fund has been allocated to an additional service from Linton-on-Ouse to York. The Government offered £1.38 million to North Yorkshire county council in April 1998. However, the spending guidelines were withheld by the Department until June 1998, so the money could not be spent on sustained initiatives within the financial year and the grant was returned and reallocated in 1999. One good reason for that was that it would have been impossible for North Yorkshire county council to have spent more than 50 per cent. on services, which would have required continued funding in the following year. There would have been no continuity of service and it would have been unfair to my constituents to introduce a new service one year and to discontinue it the following year when they may have come to depend on it. North Yorkshire county council spends a lot of time consulting with local bodies and, primarily parish councils, to ensure that such grants are used in the best way possible. As a result, services to Easingwold in my constituency and Stokesley in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition have been extended, while services for Thirsk railway station have been developed greatly and the Bedale to Northallerton route has been greatly improved.

As a result of that efficiency, the Government have allocated to North Yorkshire county council a further grant over three years of £4.14 million at the rate of £1.38 million a year. In the financial year 2000–01 a community transport scheme will be developed in the Wixley area of the Vale of York, which is most welcome.

Consultation does pay, but I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the rural bus fund brings less to rural bus services than the amount that the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Reigons takes away from shire counties' transport budgets. I ask the Minister and the Government to extend the rural bus grant to community transport schemes, which would help the disabled, the elderly, volunteers and local residents, especially in rural areas. I urge the Minister to take this opportunity to encourage the provision of bus services in rural areas, particularly those from Vale of York to the urban parts of York, some of which fall within my constituency.

City of York council gave a disappointing response to the reduction of services from Haxby to Wigginton. No alterations have been made to the reduced service and there are no plans to use any part of the council's budget to reinstate the service. Minor alterations are being made to ensure that existing services are more efficient during peak traffic congestion. I wish to put on record my disappointment at City of York council's poor reaction to the reduced service.

Will the Minister consider investment in vehicles through the introduction of a bus grant? Rural bus usage is not yet high enough to encourage operators to invest in high quality vehicles. Services provided in rural urban areas contrast hugely and action is required to enable the quality of service in rural areas to keep pace with developments in urban areas. Will the Government see fit to make a bus grant available to bus operators who provide rural services? That would ensure that rural services kept pace with those expanding in urban areas.

I invite the Government to take other measures to improve bus services and to encourge greater use of buses by passengers—for example, by maintaining or perhaps increasing fuel duty rebate or by making community transport schemes eligible for such rebates. Rural bus grants could also be used to support existing services rather than just new schemes. It would be sensible to use the money to support existing services.

In conclusion, the Government are all promises and no delivery; all mouth and no action. Far from their improving public transport prior to the introduction of congestion and workplace charging, services in the Vale of York are being withdrawn, run down and reduced. If the Government are serious about delivering better bus services and a more integrated transport system, they must address the real problem of declining bus use. Through-ticketing and multi-journey tickets would help, as would greater integration with rail services or the prospect of a rural transport grant to integrate bus and rail services.

The Vale of York has a highly developed rail connection service—through Thirsk, to Northallerton and York, by the east-coast and cross-pennine routes. It would make great sense for passengers to interconnect between buses and railways. Denmark provides the model: with one ticket, people can travel for an hour on buses, or electric or ordinary trains. We should be working to achieve that in this country. Motorists face higher punitive fuel taxes and vehicle excise duty, but only a small part of such moneys is reinvested in the roads or public transport. I urge the Government to put more money raised in that way into public transport to encourage motorists to leave their cars at home and take the bus. Indeed, my proposal is just the ticket to get people to do that. I hope that the Under-Secretary will reassure my constituents that there will be a better bus service in the Vale of York in future.

11.45 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions(Mr. Chris Mullin)

The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) raised an important matter and made several sensible suggestions. However, she was rather cheeky: no one would guess from her speech that investment in rural bus services is at its highest level for many years. I shall do my best to address her points and shall say a word or two about the Government's overall policy.

We accept the importance of supporting public transport in rural areas. In the Budget of March 1998, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced an additional £50 million a year to increase accessibility and mobility in the countryside. England's share was £41.7 million, of which £32.5 million was allocated to local authorities to support new rural bus services—that is the rural bus subsidy grant to which the hon. Lady referred. The allocation was based on the size of the rural population and the number of people living in settlements with a population of 3,000 or lower.

Benefits of that new money are already becoming apparent. A careful study of the hon. Lady's speech would reveal that she referred to some of those benefits. In 1998–99, the first year of the scheme, 1,800 new or improved services were introduced nationally. The Government have recently announced that the rural bus subsidy grant will continue beyond 2000–01 for a further three years at its current level at least. As a result, a further £100 million will be available to improve rural bus services.

The grant is for local scheduled services. Funds have also been set aside for the rural bus challenge competition, aimed at encouraging innovative and cost-effective bus-related schemes that provide and promote new rural transport ideas. Following the 1999 Budget, the challenge total was increased to a minimum of £15 million for at least the next two competitions. In the first two years of the competition, 104 schemes totalling about £28 million have been supported: 46 received a total of £11.4 million in 1998, and 58 a total of £16.8 million in 1999.

The remaining £4.2 million of the £32.5 million funding was allocated to the rural transport partnership, whose overall objective is to reduce social exclusion through enhanced accessibility to jobs and services. The Countryside Agency is responsible for that grant.

The rural bus challenge and the rural transport partnership funds can be used flexibly—for example to improve bus and rail integration. However, they are not intended to support rural rail services, for which funding is available through the rail passenger partnership funds.

In 1998–99, North Yorkshire county council received a rural bus subsidy grant of £1.38 million, and will receive a similar amount for each of the two subsequent years of the funding scheme. As the hon. Lady said, in 1998–99, the council spent only £326,000 of its grant, less than 25 per cent. of the available funding and a shortfall that has been highlighted on previous occasions. As the hon. Lady said, there were mitigating circumstances, but many authorities—unlike North Yorkshire county council—managed to spend their full allocation. We recognised all along that it might not be possible for every authority to spend its full allocation in the first year because of the need to consult and to seek the necessary powers to make the grant payments. However, North Yorkshire's underspend was the largest of any authority. In the circumstances, it is a bit rich of the hon. Lady to complain about the lack of Government support for buses in her constituency. However, that was in the past; we are concerned about the future so I shall not dwell on the matter.

The key issue, as the hon. Lady rightly says, is improvement in local bus services in consultation with rural communities. In the current year, the grant allocation for North Yorkshire is again £1.38 million, and I am pleased that the county council has confirmed that it will spend the full allocation this time round. Among the services to benefit will be those in the hon. Lady's constituency between York and Easingwold and Easingwold and Thirsk. I am glad that the hon. Lady welcomed that, although she did so rather quietly.

North Yorkshire county council was also successful in the rural bus challenge awards. In 1999 it received £43,200 for the Wixley area community transport project in the hon. Lady's constituency. The scheme provides for a fully accessible vehicle for community groups in Wixley and adjacent villages. I hope that the county council will learn from the success of other councils elsewhere by introducing future innovative schemes for rural bus challenge funding. The county council has not been as successful as other authorities in securing funds under the challenge scheme, which rewards innovation in providing rural transport.

I spoke about the rural transport partnership funds, five of which have been established in North Yorkshire since the introduction of the scheme by the Countryside Agency in 1998: the Craven, Ryedale, Selby and Richmond partnerships and the Harrogate and Hambleton partnerships. Nine awards have so far been made, and a total of £145,000 has been put into rural transport partnerships and rural transport development funds in the county. The hon. Lady will note that that is in addition to the £2.8 million allocated to date in rural bus subsidy grant and rural bus challenge schemes in North Yorkshire. I stress that it is new money that was not available under the previous Government, of whom the hon. Lady was a supporter.

It may be of interest to the hon. Lady and her constituents that North Yorkshire county council has launched a new telephone inquiry service that provides information on public transport journeys starting or finishing in the county.

Miss McIntosh

the Minister is replying to the part of my speech that related to the North Yorkshire county council services. I called the debate in order to ask about the reduction of services in the city of York, especially those from Haxby and Wigginton to York and from Linton-on-Ouse. I hope that the Minister will answer my questions.

Mr. Mullin

By coincidence, I was coming to that matter. I shall start with Linton-on-Ouse. The majority of bus services outside London—85 per cent.—are commercially provided by private operators, and decisions on the extent and frequency of those services are primarily a matter for the commercial judgment of bus operators. The Linton-on-Ouse to York service was a commercial service, which the operator decided to withdraw. As the hon. Lady said, North Yorkshire county council arranged for replacement, subsidised services and will no doubt keep the situation under review. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), wrote to the hon. Lady about the matter; his letter was slightly more upbeat than she suggested, as she quoted from it rather selectively.

The hon. Lady referred to Haxby and Wigginton on Second Reading of the Transport Bill last December. These services are provided commercially—that is, without local authority subsidy—by First York, a subsidiary of the First Group plc. Following a review last September, the company altered services to the hospital and railway station so that they run directly from Haxby village centre to York without deviation to the housing estate in the Wheatfield lane-Oaktree lane area that it served previously. I believe that the aim was to reduce journey times and encourage greater use of the service, in which respect, it has been successful. I understand that after discussions with residents, the company has again modified the route so that services come with a 300 m walking distance of the area. The local authority thinks that it would not be appropriate to subsidise a service to the area, given that there is a commercial service within reasonable walking distance.

Local authorities have a crucial role in delivering integrated local transport and in improving rural bus services. The Transport Bill now wending its way through the House will give local authorities, including North Yorkshire, the necessary tools to develop effective bus services. Among other things, the Bill introduces a national minimum standard for local authority concessionary fare schemes, guaranteeing all pensioners at least half fare on buses, or payment of not more than £5 a year for a pass—something that some of the hon. Lady's older constituents will welcome.

National targets have been agreed with the bus industry on reducing the age of the bus fleet and improving the reliability of services. We are also introducing new customer satisfaction surveys this year, and we shall publish the results. We have removed the previous Administration's freeze on the bus fuel duty rebate paid to bus operators. This rebate totals £100 million—more than it was two years ago—and it has helped the industry to keep fares down. Investment by the bus industry is £400 million a year, its highest for many years after some years of decline under the previous Administration.

We are committed to ensuring further improvements to bus services. The hon. Lady made some sensible suggestions. She also called for a bus grant. I am always a little nervous when Tory Members of Parliament start demanding more public spending because I know that their colleagues—and sometimes themselves—will jump up and down to talk about stealth taxes to raise the money. However, with that caveat in mind, I shall pass on the hon. Lady's suggestion. I have described our commitment to rural bus services, some of which have benefited the hon. Lady's constituency. We have a reasonably good story to tell, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me a chance to tell it.