HC Deb 14 November 2000 vol 356 cc161-7WH 11.30 am
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to mention the state of bus services in Essex in the Chamber. I am particularly pleased to see my neighbours the hon. Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) in their places. The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) wanted to be here but had Select Committee commitments.

In the past few years, there has been a growing demand to provide a public transport system that is fitted for the purpose and offers an addition or an alternative to private cars. I do not propose to discuss the environmental benefits of public transport or bus transport. That subject has been well debated and the argument is gaining general acceptance.

Until 1985, the guiding legislation was the Road Traffic Act 1930, which was enacted by the second Ramsay MacDonald Labour Government and sought to bring some order to a chaotic system. Until 1930, bus services could be described as a free for all. I remember my grandfather describing that there were two major companies in London, London General and Tilling, but also many private operators, some perhaps with only one vehicle. The private bus would habitually arrive just ahead of the London General or Tilling bus, just as now the buses of small operators occasionally arrive before those of Eastern National or Hedingham in certain parts of our county. That is not a helpful position. It may have been less damaging in the 1920s, when the demand for bus transport was so much greater and people did not have an alternative means of transport in many areas.

The present consequences are particularly harmful for rural areas. In the 1920s, most people would have worked close to where they lived. They would not have needed transport to get to work and therefore the need for the bus was not as great, notwithstanding the fact that there were more buses then than there are now. From 1930 onwards, with a degree of regulation the bus companies were increasingly in the hands either of local authorities or subsidiaries of the National Bus Company. Further legislation was introduced in 1968 and 1973, presumably on a bipartisan basis, which gave local authorities an increasing role in maintaining public transport through revenue support payments. Indeed, an obligation was placed upon them to provide effective public transport to meet the needs of their residents. There was a certain equality: profitable routes cross-subsidised unprofitable routes and there was a considerable public consultation.

In a previous existence, I served on Southend borough council and was a member of its public transport committee. I was lobbied by my residents and others to provide particular bus services at particular times. The decision was not entirely in the hands of that committee but the council ran its own undertaking with a joint service with Eastern National. As a consequence, the provision of public service was high on the agenda. The system was not perfect. One could be overeager to please local residents when there was little financial justification for a particular service, but the public generally felt that that system showed a responsiveness that is now absent.

The situation drastically changed with the Transport Act 1985. The licensing system of 1930 was brought to an end and registration came in its place, the crucial role of local authorities in consulting on the provision of bus services dropped away and the power generally to subsidise was brought to an end. That is not to say that there is no more power to subsidise.

Initially, when the legislation came into force, there was fierce competition between bus operators, but gradually one or another bus undertaker in an area has developed, if not a monopoly, a predominant market position. The consequence, which is hard for the public, is that the timetabling, the number of stops, the number of services and the routes are in the hands of the bus undertaking. The public are not actively involved to the degree that they were.

I accept that the enshrining of the free market in this context has been modified to an extent. That has come about through the degrees of subsidy and assistance that exist in the system. The fuel duty rebate scheme allows 70 per cent. of the fuel duty paid by operators to be reclaimed in defined circumstances. For a time, that placed community transport schemes at a disadvantage in that they did not qualify because they did not provide a service to everyone who wanted to ride on a bus. I am pleased that that difficulty is being brought to an end.

Particular routes can also be subsidised. In Essex, the Government have provided more than £1 million of rural subsidy. The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford may be pleased about the considerable subsidy of, I believe, more than £800,000, for the Dengie peninsula. I too am pleased about that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Dengie was formerly part of my constituency and, as one of the lost territories, I regard it with affection.

There is certainly public subsidy for some rural services in Essex, but nevertheless, Mr. Deputy Speaker, there are problems in towns and urban areas.

Mr. John Maxton (in the Chair)

Order. I am Mr. Maxton, not Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Hurst

Thank you, Mr. Maxton. Terminology changes so frequently in this place. I shall change the appellation as I continue.

The use of the term mid-Essex in the title of the debate is somewhat vague, because that is not a defined geographical area, but if anything is mid-Essex it is the town of Witham. It was originally a small market town and grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s, as new estates were added and people came from London to seek a new life there. Consequently, the edge of the town is now further from the centre than it was and the ageing of the population has made the problem more acute. People who came to Witham in the 1960s are now retired and bus service provision is not as good as it was.

In September, the services were drastically reduced. Parts of the town that were served quite well, with services every 20 minutes, have had those reduced to one an hour. Routes in the town have been altered so that some of the outlying estates are not served as they once were. As a consequence, elderly people are deterred from travelling as much as they otherwise might. That fact has been brought to my attention by Mrs. Ivy Phillips of Forest road, a prodigious participant and activist in many organisations in the town. She sometimes has to take a taxi in the evening, at a cost of £5 to and from the town centre, as opposed to buying a return bus ticket for £1.40. Such examples show how the alteration and reduction of bus services affects some sections of the community more than others.

Young people are also harmed. It is difficult for them to travel around town after dark. Naturally, parents are concerned about young people walking the streets, not particularly in Witham, but in any town in the country. Other than through bus services to other towns, there are no evening bus services in Witham, nor are there bus services on Sundays. Such a lack of services constricts people's personal lives. It is unhelpful to them and it is certainly unhelpful to the promotion of public transport as an alternative to the motor car.

The problem concerns not only Witham, but the routes between towns. The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford would have been as worried as I was when it was proposed to remove the bus service between Chelmsford, Hatfield Peverel, Nounsley, Ulting and Maldon. After much public protest, that service has now been reinstated—by public subsidy. Furthermore, I think that the service between Witham and Maldon has been reinstated this very day, again by way of public subsidy as opposed to commercial operation.

Private operators are willing to run public services, but I am worried, as I am sure are other hon. Members that, if those services are not profitable, they must fall back into the public domain to be paid for by money from the public exchequer. I applaud the fund for rural transport. I am encouraged that the village link scheme that runs through the north-west side of my constituency from Finchingfield to Wethersfield and eventually to Broomfield hospital is a great addition to the lives of people who live in the area, but it can never be perfect. The village of Great Saling is on the same route—one of my esteemed ministerial colleagues is speaking at an agricultural breakfast there this morning. He would not have travelled there by bus, because there is not a bus that would drop him off in that village. Although the bus takes the route up to Wethersfield and Finchingfield, it does not stop at Great Saling.

I accept that not all villages and hamlets can be served each hour by buses. The Government are making strides to assist rural transport, but there is such a long way to go and a great number of people need to be served. I would be encouraged, however, if the concept that everything could be left to the free market could be modified. It does not make good business sense that we, the public, take all of the losses.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)

Many of the services to which the hon. Gentleman referred start in his constituency and end up in mine, so I entirely share his concern about the matter. Essex county council is spending £2.4 million on subsidising rural transport, but it will overspend by £400,000 this year because of the steady withdrawal of non-profitable services. The real answer to the problem is that we need to give more money to counties such as Essex that have large rural areas, where such problems cause great distress and inconvenience to constituents. Is that not another reason why we should reconsider the formula that allocates money to local authorities, as rural authorities have steadily lost out in recent years?

Mr. Hurst

In some ways, the hon. Gentleman has understated the position. County council expenditure is £2.8 million, but that excludes the rural fund of £1,050,000. It also excludes the Dengie payment of £800,000. Therefore, approximately £2 million is coming into the county for rural services from Government sources alone. I accept that there may be a good case for additional funds to come in, but it will be a bottomless pit.

Unless private operators take some share of the responsibility and respond to the population in the county, the problem will not be solved. Every time that a route is less than profitable, it will drop out of the private sector and into the public sector. That is an invitation to concentrate private resources entirely on self-evidently profitable routes. The situation is different from what it was when there was cross-subsidy within a bus undertaking. I hope that the Government can move some way towards greater regulation of bus undertakings, so that the operators bear part of the social cost when a route is not self-evidently profitable.

11.45 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) on securing the debate. He raised many issues about bus transport and the impact that it can have, especially on people in rural communities. He also graphically outlined the historical perspective that we need to consider in relation to the current situation in counties such as Essex, and the impact of the fragmented market that has developed—especially under the previous Government.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging that our Government have attempted to give a high priority to transport and the needs of those in rural areas. Earlier this year, we announced our 10-year transport plan, which set out our ambitious further targets and investment plans for transport in the next decade. We have clearly recognised, as he recognises, the crucial importance of public transport to meet the needs of modern, sustainable communities, and the special needs of rural communities.

My hon. Friend indirectly pointed to the fact that the increasing ownership and use of the car in the past 30 to 40 years has brought new pressures and problems, although it has also brought benefits. That, combined with the structure for local transport that has been created in the past 20 years, has led to urgent problems in some parts of the country. Buses are by far the main form of travel for local journeys on public transport, so we want to ensure that bus services can be improved. I shall say more about the matter later.

My hon. Friend outlined some details of the situation in Essex. He will know that, in line with the position in the country generally, the vast majority—about 90 per cent.—of bus services in Essex are provided by commercial operators without any subsidy from the local authority. They are not contracted services but are provided by the operators in response to consumer demand, so they have to be profitable. I understand that a reasonable peak-time service is generally provided in urban areas and on routes into urban areas but, as we have heard, there are some problems with the adequacy of the service, especially to rural areas. In talking about young people and the elderly, my hon. Friend highlighted the impact that a poor service can have on certain groups in such communities.

In common with the rest of the country, rural areas in Essex are most likely to rely on contracted services that are subsidised by the local authority. Essex county council acknowledges that there have been several service cuts and frequency reductions, which have resulted from commercial decisions made by the operators. An additional £450,000 has been allocated to the county's local bus subsidy budget for this financial year and the next. That enables some of the gaps created by the commercial service withdrawals to be filled. My hon. Friend mentioned service 90 from Maldon to Witham and service 73 from Maldon to Chelmsford as two of the most important routes.

I recognise that local authority budgets are frequently under pressure and that difficult decisions need to be made concerning competing priorities. Quality partnerships offer one of the first opportunities for service improvements. They relate to one of my hon. Friend's main questions, which is how we are to persuade commercial operators to take on some of the social responsibility for sustaining services in communities where demand is low. That is a good question and the answer—as I think he is implying—is not simply to allow operators to reduce those services and then lob in more public money to sustain the operators. We should get them to the table to talk about how they can sustain and, if possible, develop demand for bus services, and quality partnerships provide opportunities for that. They recognise the fundamental role of local authorities in improving public transport—something to which he subscribes—in particular, their traffic management responsibilities.

There are now about 150 different quality partnership schemes in towns and cities throughout the country and they show that getting the operators to sit down with other stakeholders and community representatives can improve the quality of the service, thereby sustaining and in some instances increasing demand. That has a knock-on effect in sustaining the profitability, or at least the financial viability, of a particular route.

For example, bus operators can be persuaded to think about the standard of their vehicle, or its size. It may not be commercially viable for a single-decker bus with 30 seats to trundle around a country lane, but using a smaller vehicle could make the route viable. Operators are not incentivised to think about such issues on their own, but through the quality partnership mechanism such measures have been introduced in other parts of the country. Essex county council is seeking to establish a bus quality partnership with the operators in the area. An example is route 42 in Chelmsford, which serves major housing areas, two hospitals and the town centre. Through quality partnerships, I hope that we can persuade the operators to think about those issues.

On the possibility of service frequency enhancements, we want local authorities to be able to buy in additional frequency on bus routes that they are not already securing. That could be an effective way of pump priming particular routes, perhaps to influence modal shift or meet other local objectives. Our experience suggests that although such measures were supposed to be possible under existing powers, in practice there have been problems and local authorities may have been deterred by legal restraints on doing anything to inhibit competition. The Transport Bill will clarify that position and also help integration.

My hon. Friend mentioned the additional funding that the Government have introduced in several ways to support rural services. It amounts to £175 million in three years, to next April, and it has been specifically targeted to guarantee the protection of transport in rural communities.

We will build on the success of the introduction of the rural bus subsidy grant. Nationally, there are more than 1,800 new or improved services, and Essex's share of that grant is £1.05 million per annum. I understand that following extensive consultations with local communities, the funding is providing new countywide links for work, shopping and school journeys, and about 250,000 passenger journeys were made on those services in Essex last year. There will be another £100 million to enable that grant to continue at present levels for three years from next April.

As my hon. Friend says, under the rural bus challenge Essex county council received more than £800,000 for the innovative Dengie peninsula village scheme using accessible seven-seater vehicles connecting with a regular conventional service operating to the main towns in the area. My hon. Friend may be aware that Ministers do not often receive letters of thanks from the public; such was the impact of that service, however, that Ministers received such letters. Calls are already being made for vehicles to be increased in size so that more passengers can avail themselves of the service. We should aim to replicate elsewhere the impact of that rural bus challenge scheme.

My hon. Friend referred to services in urban areas, which is an important issue in some Essex towns. The urban bus challenge will issue guidance and invite areas to make their bids as soon as possible, with the aim of starting the first rounds of new projects next year. That opportunity should be considered in Braintree and other parts of Essex.

Local authorities play a most important role in respect of bus services. Local authorities and bus operators must work constructively together to meet bus travellers' needs—that necessity cannot be overstated. The introduction of local transport plans means that authorities must now have clear strategies for buses in their areas. The 10-year plan includes the investment of £19 billion of public money to modernise transport in every region, which will provide a major incentive for local authorities to develop the priorities for their areas. The local transport plans that the Department is assessing contain many forward-looking proposals.

Last December, we increased by 25 per cent. Essex county council's allocation for integrated transport in its provisional local transport plan and we are now assessing its first full local transport plan. To enable local authorities to build upon initiatives proposed in their provisional plans, we have increased by 35 per cent.

the resources available nationally for those first plans. That should enable local authorities such as Essex to progress with their strategies.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that buses are a key element of Essex county council's road passenger transport policy—that is reflected in its local transport plan. However, we expect bus operators to rise to the challenges ahead—a point that my hon. Friend stressed. We hope to build on the best that we have, ensuring that we provide bus services that meet the demands of rural and urban areas.

I cannot comment on the quality of the plan submitted by Essex or any other authority because decisions on the local transport plan settlements are not due until December. However, I have noted that the county is working closely with the bus operators to increase bus use and that that is a priority in its plan. The county's proposals include several important schemes to aid bus services.

More work needs to be done and difficulties must be overcome for us to reach the standards that we want in all areas, including rural areas. However, I believe that the industry, local authorities and all others involved are motivated by the resources provided, which enable them to get together as partners to deal with the issues raised by my hon. Friend.

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept my acknowledgement of the difficulties faced by the communities to which he referred, which he outlined clearly. However, I hope that he will acknowledge—as he has before—that the Government have put in place measures for development and resources that will allow people on the ground to bring bus operators to the table, through the local authorities. As a result of our provisions, those parties can work together in partnership to tackle the problems that people in his community face.