HC Deb 08 January 2002 vol 377 cc158-79WH

11 am

Andrew George (St. Ives)

I am sure that I speak for all right hon. and hon. Members today when I pass, via the Minister and others, our thoughts and support to the Chancellor and his wife following their tragic news. As well as offering our private support to them at this difficult time, we hope that they will not suffer public or media intrusion.

I am delighted to have secured this debate on island and rural transport. It is an opportunity to raise several issues, and I have informed the Minister's office about the line of questions that I shall pursue. The first matter is island transport, which is a particular issue in my constituency. No doubt others will wish to express their concerns about islands in their constituencies. With regard to the Isles of Scilly, I am not asking for special or favourable treatment; I ask merely for parity with other areas, particularly Scottish offshore islands, with which the Isles of Scilly can most closely and appropriately be compared.

The Isles of Scilly are five inhabited islands out of 200 islands and rocks—the nearest, St. Mary's, being 30 miles off Land's End and 42 nautical miles from Penzance in my constituency. The population of the Scillies is 2,000. The islands enjoy ferry transport from Penzance provided by the Isles of Scilly Steamship company, which also offers a freight service. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft fly there from a number of airports.

I shall deal first with sea transport. The Isles of Scilly Steamship company provides a ferry, Scillonian III, which carries 600 passengers. It was purpose-built in 1977, with some support from the then Labour Government, who supplied a £1 million loan towards its purchase and construction. It can take limited freight and, for seven months of the year, operates one return trip per day for six days a week. From early November until late March there is no passenger ferry service to and from the islands. The ferry is laid up during that time partly because of low demand, and also because it must, of necessity, have a flat bottom, and the prevailing inclement south-westerly winds in the winter months make for an unpleasant journey for people travelling in a flat-bottomed ferry. The freight service, on the Gry Maritha, takes freight to and from the islands three times a week. That loads and unloads by crane; unlike many Scottish ports, it has no roll on/roll off service.

With regard to air transport, British International has two Sikorski helicopters that provide services for between 26 and 30 passengers, depending on the amount of freight being carried, and costing about £96 for a period return. Two services out and back are run during the winter months when the ferry does not operate, which are clearly lifeline services to the islands. I am told that the company cross-subsidises what would otherwise be a loss-making service during these winter months with its other operations.

A fixed-wing aircraft is operated by Skybus for several destinations, including Land's End, Newquay, Exeter, Bristol and Plymouth. There is an eight-seater service from Land's End and a 16-seater service from other areas. All those services together provide 250,000 passenger journeys per year for people travelling from and to these small islands. The helicopter service provides 47 per cent. of those journeys and the ferry provides 35 per cent.

Hon. Members may wonder why I am describing the situation in such detail, but it is important that they understand the services that are provided to the Isles of Scilly, as I shall go on to compare them with those provided in Scotland. I do not begrudge my Scottish friends and colleagues those services, but the comparison should be made.

In Scotland, the Government have been empowered through the Highlands and Islands (Shipping Services) Act 1960 to provide a deficit grant subsidy for transport links to offshore islands. That is now the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. The subsidies have been given to Caledonian MacBrayne, which has been wholly owned by the Secretary of State for Scotland since the 1970s. The company has to fulfil demand for specific services, including 23 lifeline routes, with a public subsidy of £21.4 million. A subsidy of £11 million is given to the Orkney and Shetland group, which is currently operated by P&O. The subsidies are EU-approved as state aid, subject to the services' being put to tender. The Treasury has always calculated funding for those services as part of the Scottish funding bloc. Air services are also supported with subsidies, which have been given to Highlands and Islands Airport Ltd. since the 1980s.

I have already given the Minister some comparisons in terms of cost subsidy per nautical mile and air mile between the services provided to the Isles of Scilly and those for Scotland. For example, the 42-mile ferry service from Penzance to St. Mary's costs the passenger 86p per nautical mile, whereas the 30-mile ferry service to Islay costs the passenger 23p per mile. The helicopter service for passengers in my constituency is £1.45 per air mile, compared with the cost of the Glasgow-Campbeltown service, which is 98p. Similarly, freight costs to the Isles of Scilly are more expensive, as well as being restricted.

I am aware that the subsidies for Scotland are put through the public service obligation test, which asks whether the market would operate the service on its own, without a subsidy. However, the Isles of Scilly face major dilemmas and opportunities, and decisions must be taken soon about whether the services that they currently enjoy can be sustained and extended. I would argue for extension, especially during the winter months.

As far as the PSO test is concerned, there is no question but that the island economy would almost totally collapse without existing services. However, the Isles of Scilly Steamship company cannot afford a new boat and cannot invest in ro-ro facilities. Last year, the company lost more than £100,000 merely on inter-island services, for which the Council of the Isles of Scilly provided a subsidy of £19,000. The company told me this week that it makes marginal profits in a good year and loses heavily in poor years. As a consequence, it does not have the capability to replace its ageing assets without support. Objective 1 money needs to be matched by support from the United Kingdom Government to replace the Scillonian III, and the loss- making inter-island freight operation needs revenue support and grant aid for future vessel replacement if it is to continue at all.

What assessment has the Minister made of the comparison between the costs and quality of services provided to the Isles of Scilly and those in Scotland, which I am sure are richly deserved? What discussions has she had with the Treasury or the Scottish Executive on parity of public support for such services? What advice would she give me, and therefore the island communities, on meeting future needs? I do not expect the Minister to have come to the Chamber with a cheque book as well as a speech, so I do not expect her to answer my questions in financial terms. However, I hope that she at least agrees to follow up the questions that I raise with further meetings, so as to help, advise and support the fragile island community on the Isles of Scilly as it deals with the issues.

I also want to raise issues about rail, but I understand that several hon. Members want to speak, so I shall try to be brief. I am especially interested in the mainline service between Paddington and Penzance. My constituency experiences the same problem as any community at the end of a main line. If there is a problem anywhere along such a line, the people at the end of it always get the worst deal.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Is my hon. Friend aware that Railtrack threatens to make the whole of Cornwall an island during the Easter weekend, as it proposes to close the Brunel bridge over the River Tamar? Does he agree that that shows ludicrous contempt for the Cornish holiday industry, and more generally displays a lack of awareness of the importance of encouraging rail transport for holiday purposes to rural areas throughout the country? Will he join me in making representations—I have made some already—to the Secretary of State and Railtrack to reverse the decision?

Andrew George

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. Not only have he, other colleagues and I raised the issue, but The Western Morning News has galvanised support locally to raise concern about the closure on that weekend, which was announced only recently. I had intended to raise the matter with the Minister. There will be other closures on the line in the coming months.

The closure is due to welcome investment in services, which has been long overdue. It is good that money is to be spent on the bridge. Brunel's generation recognised that it needed genuine investment and regular maintenance, but generations of recent Governments have not, hence the delay. The investment is welcome, and disruption is inevitable, but why choose to close the bridge on the most symbolic weekend of the year for the future of the summer tourist season? Many in Cornwall worry when England finds itself shut off. We worry about how it will manage without us, but we hope that it will cope for the few days that the bridge is to be closed. However, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that another time should be chosen.

On the broader strategic issues affecting Penzance commuters and passengers, I know that the Minister has experience of the rail journey to Newlyn, as she accompanied me on a Select Committee visit there to examine the fishing industry. On that day, the service ran on time—I do not know about the journey back—but that is not always the experience of those who travel to the far end of my constituency. In 1906 the scheduled journey time between Penzance and Paddington was six hours 35 minutes. It now takes approximately five hours, which is an improvement, but the journey from Exeter to Penzance takes as long—about three hours—as it did in 1906.

In 1997, Railtrack produced a trans-European networks study, funded by European TENs money, entitled "A Vision for a World Class Rail Transportation Network for the South West". It states: Railtrack is investing in 'core enabling' works to facilitate performance improvements and remove bottlenecks in the Great Western Main Line…over the next five years. Railtrack claimed that it could cut journey times by up to 30 minutes, but five years on, as a result of disruptions and delays, some 30 minutes has been added, on average. In the past two years, services have gone from bad to worse. In the case of Cornwall, a vision for world class has turned into the nightmare of a third-world service.

As I sent her the relevant quote, the Minister will be aware that on 24 October, Sir Alastair Morton—former chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, and a Government appointee who presumably spoke for the Government—told a business gathering in Plymouth that the South West Rail network falls way behind other parts of the country in the Government's schedule for change. You are not near the top of the pecking order when seen from the centre. The region does not meet any of the Government's measurable criteria for priority funding. Is that still the position? What must Cornwall and Devon do to improve their chances of securing vital investment and support? Lack of investment in rail infrastructure in Cornwall is a cause for concern. It is having a visible effect on levels of service, on customer confidence and patronage, and on Cornwall's credibility as a location for new and continuing business investment. Passengers are unhappy with the caretaker franchises that the SRA promotes through two-year extensions.

Disruption has been caused by many factors, including Virgin's withdrawal of services in Cornwall while driver retraining is undertaken. The introduction of 1960s rolling stock has added discomfort to a generally unpunctual service. What comfort can the Minister give to rail passengers at the end of the line in my constituency, and to passengers throughout the region? What will be done to get our services up the pecking order, to increase investment, and to improve the punctuality and comfort of those services?

In view of time, I shall not detain the Chamber much longer, but I want to raise one or two other matters. I should point out to the Minister that, although there are problems, the prospect of objective 1 funding for a further five years presents a major opportunity. I realise that, with our support, the Government have taken Railtrack into administration, but a great deal of uncertainty has none the less been created. Urgent decisions are required to bring forward projects that make the necessary infrastructure investments and improvements and take advantage of objective 1 funding, which is available for a limited time only.

What comfort, support and advice can the Minister give me so that I can tell the project operators and managers in Cornwall how to achieve the essential project progress that is required? Investment is needed in the branch line to the new university in Falmouth, for redoubling the track throughout most of Cornwall, and in signalling. Journey times must be improved. It takes two hours just to get from Penzance to Plymouth, let alone to get out of Cornwall and on to the track to London.

I do not want my speech to be simply a list of whinges. I congratulate the Government on what they have achieved through the rural bus services grant, which is significantly improving bus services in Cornwall, and I welcome many of the aspirations in their 10-year plan. It is important for rural communities in my constituency and throughout Cornwall that the fuel duty rebate should be extended to more informal community transport services such as voluntary car services and community bus services. The Government said that they would free up opportunities for community transport services to step in where bus services are not available. What progress is being made in achieving the targets in the 10-year plan?

I welcome this opportunity to raise matters of great importance to my constituents. We must ensure not only that there is parity between Scottish islands and the Isles of Scilly, but that rail services to the far west of Cornwall are at least brought up to national standards—even though those are not acceptable—before they go beyond them to achieve the levels of service that people in rural areas richly deserve.

11.22 am
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I am grateful to be called to speak in this important debate and associate myself with the comments made by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). I remind him that the last time that we were both in this Chamber we were talking about the south-west, defending initial moves towards regional government, although we approached the subject from slightly different areas and perspectives. I cannot comment on the second part of the title of the debate because we have not yet found an island in Stroud, but we are a rural area and I can comment on that basis.

I shall mention a few local issues in the hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take them up on my behalf, but I also want to consider the wider terrain in terms of what needs to be done about transport in rural areas. Although I have some criticisms of the Government's approach to the issue, they clearly recognise its importance and have addressed some of the underlying factors.

Five aspects are worthy of mention. First, rural transport grants have helped the bus industry. They have made a difference in my area, where we have a bus service that works on an interactive basis, which means that people may telephone for a bus. We must do more in that regard because there is pleasing evidence that that scheme allows people in the most rural parts of my constituency to have access to a bus for the first time. We must convert more people to wanting to use the bus and we must run the system more effectively because communications can make the difference. Not everyone in rural areas has a telephone, and if a bus does not arrive we must have a way in which we can tell people at what time it is likely to arrive. Sometimes buses do not arrive at all, although it is not a common occurrence.

The second aspect is the increase in rail investment, which is still insufficient. My constituency is linked to that of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) by a railway line on which I am pleased to say that the rail operating companies are trying to run more trains. However, they have made promises that I am not sure that they can keep because we are now looking forward to more trains by next Easter, which means a delay. The existing services, which are well used, have improved when they run on time and when there are no problems further down the line—there have been such problems on several occasions.

The third area concerns transport in rural areas, which often depends on volunteers. Investment in voluntary bus services, and especially in voluntary minibus services, has increased, and it has made a difference. However, a great deal more needs to be done to build on that progress.

Fourthly, some parish councils have taken the £15,000 challenge. I am proud to say that I am still a town councillor, but I wish that more parish and town councils would take up that challenge because they are slow to come forward. If they did more work in that area they would make a difference to their communities, which would be preferable to the current diminution in that layer of local government. Parish councillors would be appreciated by their communities if they sorted out transport.

Fifthly, initiatives such as jumpstart, which also applies to the Cotswold constituency, have been implemented. We have identified that transport makes a difference because it allows people to attend work and training, which can make a difference to their lifestyle. The jumpstart initiative involves the provision by the Employment Service of free mopeds and training to help people to learn to drive. I believe that we must get people off the road, but there are situations in which, if one does not have a car, one does not work.

Transport has created various running sores in my constituency, such as the long-term problem with unacceptable traffic noise in Upton St. Leonards near the MS. Like my predecessor, I felt that I was banging my head against a brick wall on that issue, but the Government have listened. I should like to claim responsibility for that achievement, but it was not down to me; it was down to community effort. If one puts a good case to the Government they tend to listen; they deserve to be congratulated on that.

We must address the main factors. Transport is important to people who live in rural areas because it relates to their ability to work, to access shops and to send their children to the school of their choice. If transport is not available it bears down on people's ability to choose, which relates to their quality of life. We must recognise that we differ from urban Britain in the scale and nature of our problems.

We need greater resources, but we must deal with those resources in a sensitive way that is determined by individual demand. I stress the word "individual" because we are collecting together groups of individuals to make such services viable, and it is that process that allows services to run. That point relates to anti-poverty strategies, and I am pleased that the Government have highlighted their recognition that we must deal with the transport issue if we are to get to grips with the reasons why some people in rural areas have no quality of life and live in poverty. That will give greater opportunity to people, which has been borne out by the many reports, countryside agencies and organisations that examine poverty in rural and urban Britain.

I wish that it were just a question of introducing more buses and trains and better roads, but it is not. We must consider ways to improve quality. If we want people to use public transport, it must be reliable. The age of vehicles matters, as do bus shelters, particularly those in the more urbanised parts of rural areas, because no one wants to stand for a quarter of an hour waiting for a bus in the pouring rain if they do not have to. I do not suggest bus shelters for every village bus stop, but sensible use of small amounts of investment will make a significant difference to people's willingness to use public transport.

I fervently believe that we do not need more roads. We have had arguments on the subject recently, as the hon. Member for Cotswold knows; incidentally, I support the idea of the missing link just outside his neck of the woods. We need to improve by ensuring that the road network is completed. In the main, people in rural areas want not more roads but improvement of the quality of existing roads by proper surfacing—they want horrible potholes filled in before someone is knocked off their bike or worse. More money is coming through, but we have such a legacy of disrepair that more must be done.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I am grateful to my neighbour for giving way. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need more flexible rural bus services? People tend to run bus services because they have always been run, but routes, services and, above all, the size of bus used must be reviewed. If it is uneconomic to run a full-sized bus, a smaller community bus should be used.

Mr. Drew

I totally agree with my neighbour. I thought I knew a bit about rural Britain, but only after I was elected as MP did I understand why, in the most isolated of places, one sees bus stops at which buses never stop. It is because we have the wonderful system whereby, when a bus goes past such a bus stop, the company can claim subsidy or some form of support. That system dates from the dark ages and no one has changed it or can explain it. It is time that we considered sensible approaches and had flexible responses.

Andrew George

Would the hon. Gentleman like to expand on that point? In the past, bus subsidies have applied to a particular route although, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, they should apply to an area so that the system responds to the needs of that area over time and does not serve to perpetuate one route with a rigid scheduled timetable.

Mr. Drew

I entirely agree with that. The hon. Gentleman may also want to comment on the system of the traffic commissioners. It is not good enough that money is available to save rural buses if those buses cannot be saved; a new route can be created, but money cannot be put into an existing route because of the current subsidy regime and regulations. That needs consideration because it might lead to ludicrous situations in which a route is lost and, later, an improved variation of it introduced. That is not sensible.

I am satisfied that the 10-year transport plan is right, but we need to consider the action that follows. I will pose some difficult questions not just to the public sector but to the private sector. I am not satisfied that the private sector has played fair or is aware of its responsibility to rail and road, especially with regard to buses that use the roads.

We must accept that we shall not go backwards. It would be nice to re-regulate some of the bus services in rural areas because that made a significant difference to the number of buses and routes that were used during the past 10 years or so. We do not necessarily want what happened to Railtrack to happen to the rest of the industry, but we need rationalisation so that we may talk to fewer people. As MPs, we become frustrated with the number of different companies that we must deal with, which make promises but do not always deliver on them.

There is a problem and it is shared between the public and private sectors. If the private sector cannot do the job, we must look for alternatives—the public sector or even greater use of the voluntary sector. The shame is that the voluntary sector is often looking for such work, but must not do it on the cheap, must not be ripped off and must do it as part of a proper strategy. We could have a fast minibus link between the hospitals in our county—I am looking at the hon. Member for Cotswold—to ensure that people without transport can get to the towns and hospitals where their nearest and dearest are. That may be idealistic, but we should be looking for such ideas and I am sure that the voluntary sector would be pleased to participate in such provision.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful to my neighbour for giving way again. I do not know whether he is aware of the community bus service that was founded by the late Trevor Baxter near Stow-on-the-Wold. It was one of the first community bus services in the country and does exactly what the hon. Gentleman described. It is staffed by volunteer drivers and links local hospitals and doctors' surgeries. If enough notice is given, the route can often be varied to accommodate people who want to go to the doctor, post office, hospital and so on. A little public pump priming would help the volunteers to buy the buses, which they could then run. That would be an excellent community service.

Mr. Drew

I am aware of the late Mr. Baxter, who did excellent work. It can be done, but the problem is often that the initiative runs out of steam because the voluntary sector is taken for granted and resources are not forthcoming in the long term. I shall move on quickly because other hon. Members want to speak and it would be wrong for me to take more time than is due to me.

I shall give an example from my constituency of the need for proper planning. The Minister's predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), met us three years ago and agreed to allow Gloucestershire county council to borrow money for a rail-bus interchange at Stroud. I could bore the Chamber for the next half hour on why that did not happen and I point the finger at public authorities and the private sector, including Railtrack, for their inability to reach agreement not on the service but on land swaps and arrangements for building facilities. The Government must be cuter when considering how to push things along more quickly and sometimes use direct intervention. It is our money that is being forwarded for such projects, but they take too long and there are too many frustrations. I am sure that the Minister will take note and look into the matter urgently to ensure that different authorities do what they are asked to do.

Safety is sometimes underestimated. In urban Britain the number of casualties has declined, pleasingly, because of the action taken by the Government and their predecessor, but sadly the number of accidents in rural Britain has increased. Unfortunately, speed reflects people's frustration when they are held up, and they drive more quickly on rural roads.

We must also consider greater coherence in traffic calming, which was the subject of a debate in Westminster Hall some months ago. I am referring not just to road humps but to the way in which people who do not use a car get about. I am a keen cyclist and it used to be a pleasure to ride my bike around the rural parts of my constituency. That is still usually so, but if someone drives up behind at 60 mph in a narrow lane it makes one think carefully about cycling there. The Government should address that problem with an education programme, if nothing else, to persuade people to drive more considerately in rural areas.

I turn to some specific issues; I make no apology for doing so because I said that I would. One thing that the Government can do to make a significant difference to people living in rural areas is to ensure that the train system is improved in such a way that people want to use it, and—by providing more trains—that they can use it. We are talking about a £50 million investment that would dramatically improve the way in which people travel from Gloucestershire to London, for instance from the constituency of the hon. Member for Cotswold, where there is currently only a single line between Kemble and Swindon. It will not just be an improvement for ordinary passengers, but will make a significant difference for business. I have spoken about that subject before and make no apology for raising it again.

There is also a strategy in the south-west known as SWARMMS—the south-west area multi-modal study. I shall not dwell on the acronym. It is very important, but it tends to leave out the county of Gloucestershire. My hon. Friend the Minister might like to consider that. In a number of cases we are not looking for great expenditure in the county, but are asking for things like the doubling of the track between Kemble and Swindon. That issue should be addressed.

In conclusion, much has been done. The issue is micro-management, not big expenditure. We need to get on with doing things at ground level and to ensure that we continue to do things on a scale that is sensitive, takes account of what rural people want and attends to their demands. Our actions should follow that strategy.

11.41 am
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute)

I begin by joining other hon. Members in expressing my condolences to the Chancellor and Mrs. Brown on the tragic loss of their baby daughter.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this important debate. In rural and island areas, transport is vital; it impinges on all services.

I should like to refer to the efforts to re-establish the ferry service between Campbeltown and Ballycastle in Northern Ireland. It is important both to the economy of the remote Kintyre peninsula and to the Moyle area of Northern Ireland. The efforts to get the service up and running are in danger of floundering in a bureaucratic muddle. When I wrote to the Prime Minister, his written answer was that the ferry service was the responsibility of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, because it runs between two different countries in the United Kingdom. However, letters to the Secretary of State in that Department are transferred to the Scotland Office, on the grounds that that office acts as the Department's agent. The Scotland Office, of course, says that it does not have a budget for such a service; that is because the budget rests with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

The Scottish and Northern Ireland Executives have indicated that they are willing to pay to meet the cost of the service. What is required is for this Parliament to make an order to transfer to the Scottish and Northern Ireland Executives the power to pay the subsidy. That, apparently, will take time. It is important for the tender documents to be issued now, so that the service can start in the summer. Many of the people who will use the service will be tourists, and there is no point in starting a service in the autumn. It is vital for it to be up and running by 1 July at the latest.

I suggest to the Minister that tender documents be issued urgently by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, because that Department does have a budget. In parallel, an order can be passed that transfers to the Scottish and Northern Ireland Executives the power to pay the subsidy, so that the order has been passed by the time that the tender documents are returned, enabling those Executives to accept the best tender and enabling the service to be in place by the summer. It is vital, and I hope that that course of action will be taken.

Islanders suffer tremendously high fuel costs compared with those paid by people living in the rest of the country. On Mull and Islay, in my constituency, the cost of fuel is 20p a litre higher than it is on the mainland. My constituents deserve parity with the rest of the country, not least because the taxation that is being paid to the Treasury, particularly on the island of Islay, far exceeds any money that comes back in the form of services. The people there are paying more in VAT on petrol because of the higher cost. Also, a tremendous contribution is made to the Treasury because of the number of distilleries and the large tax on whisky.

I want to make two suggestions. First, variable rates of duty should be charged on petrol on islands. That would require a derogation from a European Union directive, but I would encourage the Government to apply for such a derogation and levy different rates of fuel duty on islands to bring the price down to that on the mainland.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that I agree with that proposal. However, does he accept that it might also be fair to apply it to certain remote rural areas that are far from the motorway and the principal road network, on which most of the money is spent?

Mr. Reid

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, although the price difference between the islands and the mainland is more than 20p a litre, there is also a difference of a good few pence a litre between normal mainland prices and those in remote areas. Although my suggestion would be of more importance to the islands, it should also be applied to parts of the mainland.

Another reason for the high cost of petrol is the small turnover. My second suggestion is that the Government give transport agencies the power to buy petrol in bulk, thus obtaining a lower unit cost, and to sell it on at that cost to island and rural filling stations.

11.46 am
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing it. I was interested that he introduced his remarks by mentioning constituencies with islands in them. My constituency is an island, as the Minister well knows, so I feel particularly well qualified to speak.

I begin by admitting to some ignorance. I am glad that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) spoke about the position that has been reached on the Campbeltown to Ballycastle service. I read, back in 1999, that his predecessor was making the case for the subsidy to that service to continue. The lifeline ferry services are of particular importance to island residents. Tourism services are very important, but lifeline services are even more so.

My second obligation is to put on the record the information that has been given to me by those who operate the ferry services to the Isle of Wight. They complained to me, perhaps rightly, that I had presented the island as having ferry services among the most expensive in the country. The operators have kindly supplied me with some figures. The cost per kilometre of Wightlink—hon. Members will forgive me if the figures do not compare with those presented by the hon. Member for St. Ives—is £1.55 for the car ferry service, and 54p for the passenger service. Red Funnel costs £1.05 per kilometre. The Cowes chain ferry, which is operated by Isle of Wight council, costs £9.29 per kilometre. The Red Funnel high-speed service costs 29p per kilometre and the Hovertravel hovercraft service 57p per kilometre.

I have put those figures on the record partly to show how successful the private sector has sometimes been, without any subsidy from the Government, in providing cross-Solent services. I emphasise that those are the lowest fares available, some of which require a person to buy a book of 24 tickets, which must be used in six or 12 months. Not everyone can afford that. The other day I had to bring a car across—fortunately, from my point of view, at public expense—and it cost £50 for a return trip involving travelling on one day and coming back on another. That illustrates the concern felt by many of my constituents that we should not simply compare the lowest costs, because few people—perhaps only one fifth of the island's population—make frequent and regular journeys to the mainland. However, they must occasionally make urgent journeys, and they feel that the cost of those is unfair.

The island is taking the initiative in three areas as a result of an invitation given by the Minister's predecessor to my predecessor to consider the cost of travel for the purposes of health, education and seeking jobs.

Andrew George

I was fumbling through my notes to find the comparable costs for the Isles of Scilly. During the height of the season, the return ferry journey between Penzance and St. Mary's for a foot passenger—one cannot take one's car—is £78. It would be useful, perhaps after the debate, for the hon. Gentleman and I to compare the costs of ferry services to the mainland in our constituencies.

Mr. Turner

I will gladly share with the hon. Gentleman the figures that Wightlink gave me. Its list includes Caledonian MacBrayne and the Scottish islands routes, the Irish sea crossings and the services to the Isle of Man but, for reasons best known to Wightlink, it does not mention the Isles of Scilly.

It appears from the hon. Gentleman's earlier comments that the Isles of Scilly benefit from at least a fairly regular air service, unlike the Isle of Wight. To some extent, that reflects the fact that we already have relatively swift communications with London. For the benefit of anyone who wants to visit the island for a holiday or for other purposes, I should emphasise that it takes me only two hours to get from my front door in Cowes to Waterloo station on the scheduled service, all things being equal. For the most part, the service has operated reasonably well, given the obstacles that the Government and others have put in its way recently. However, we would benefit enormously from assistance with air services because people from parts of the United Kingdom outside London and the south-east also want to come to the island.

I revert to the issues of most concern, the first of which is health. As in the Isles of Scilly and other remote rural areas and islands, our hospital cannot provide every necessary service. I compliment the bodies that support people who have treatment on the mainland, including the Wessex Cancer Trust and Heartcare, which assist people who travel to Southampton or the King Edward VII hospital at Midhurst for the services that they need. June Ring, in particular, has worked tirelessly for the trust over many years to assist people who visit the Southampton hospitals for treatment. She has accompanied many of them and has arranged taxis and minibuses at the other end. The King Edward VII hospital does the same for those with coronary care needs.

Residents are concerned that coronary services may be transferred to Brighton, which is a long way away, without the advantages of transport being in place. I put on record my thanks to David Crawley for his work for the Isle of Wight primary care trust to ensure that proper transport links are in place when the service is transferred. People do not always need accompanied transport, but they do need simple transport. We are taking the initiative on that, but we may need the Government to make a little contribution towards the cost.

Secondly, there are education services. We are fortunate to have a further education college on the island, but it clearly cannot provide every service, and many people must travel to the mainland. Thirdly, there are people who are seeking work. On the island, we have commissioned a survey into reducing the cost of cross-Solent travel for those particularly needy groups. I hope—in fact, I am sure—that in due course we shall make proposals for the Government to assist us, through the Isle of Wight partnership and the Isle of Wight council, in reducing those costs.

It is easy to criticise the Government and the relevant companies, and then to present a wish list to which even the Minister, with her customary generosity, would be unable to respond instantly. However, I want to mention how pleased I am about the level of subsidy and support provided by the ferry companies for island people—particularly the ice hockey team, the Isle of Wight Raiders, which has been subsidised until recently by Wightlink. I appreciate the support given to sports people, bands wanting to play on the mainland and a range of other people.

The ferry companies are part of the community. They are not simply leaching it. However, there are problems with the oligopoly. We have only two major ferry companies. Of course, Hovertravel also provides the hovercraft service from Southsea to Ryde. Will the Minister examine, in particular, the open port regulations? During the previous Parliament, I wrote to her predecessor, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), asking her to do so.

The regulations rightly require those who operate an open port to make space available to anyone, but do not ensure that the same space is always made available to operators wanting to provide regular services. At the time in question, Red Funnel was owned by Associated British Ports, which also owned the entire waterfront in Southampton. It had an interest in maintaining the Red Funnel monopoly on the route to Cowes, and one way of doing that was to deny other companies a regular landing slot on the waterfront at Southampton. I hope that the Minister will attend to the matter.

I emphasise the need for flexibility in other respects. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute referred to fuel costs. Until recently there were three suppliers of fuel on the island but, thanks to various takeovers, we now have a monopoly supplier. The effect has been to push up the cost of agricultural fuels—that is the example that I have been given—and perhaps other fuels, in comparison with the mainland.

We also need flexibility with respect to taking animals to slaughter. We do not have a slaughterhouse on the island. We consider that that is largely the result of legislation derived from Europe, which was gold-plated by the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. With the National Farmers Union and other agencies, we are looking towards the creation of a slaughterhouse on the island, perhaps associated with an outlet for island produce. It would be helpful if the Government would suggest some support for more slaughterhouses, particularly in rural areas, because there are animal welfare benefits in providing them.

Finally, I shall say a word or two about assisted area status.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair)

A word would be better.

Mr. Turner

I apologise for taking too much time.

We need assisted area status. Perhaps that is the simplest way to put it. The Isle of Wight is one of the poorest areas in the south-east—certainly among the 10 poorest constituencies. It has high unemployment and the lowest gross domestic product in the south-east—less than 75 per cent. of the national average—yet we are unfairly associated with wealthier areas such as Hampshire for the purpose of assisted area status. We need to be considered independently of the mainland so that we can qualify, if not for objective 1, at least for objective 2 status. If the Minister can promise nothing else, I hope that she can promise that.

11.59 am
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. In the interests of brevity, I merely associate myself with many of the remarks that have been made, particularly those made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). I congratulate him on securing the debate, because the chance to discuss island issues in the House is rare.

I associate myself also with the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) on the cost of petrol and diesel in island and rural communities, and I agree with much that was said by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), particularly about the need for rural slaughterhouses. We in Shetland are familiar with that problem. The hon. Gentleman and I are two of only three Members who have entirely island constituencies, so we have a particular contribution to make to a debate such as this—although I envy the hon. Gentleman for having a constituency with only one island.

Naturally, much of the debate on island transport has centred on ferry services. In the brief time available to me, I ask the Minister to turn her attention to air services to island communities. They are particularly important to my constituents. Journeys from Orkney involve a two-hour ferry trip to the mainland followed by at least a four-hour journey by road to reach any sizeable town, and it is a 14-hour ferry journey from Shetland to Aberdeen.

Air travel is immensely important to people requiring hospital treatment in Aberdeen, and to those who need to travel for educational or job-seeking purposes. When I checked this morning, I was told that the standard full fare from Sumburgh in Shetland to Aberdeen was £294, and that the cost from Kirkwall in Orkney to Aberdeen was £277. That is a significant burden on local people who have one-day hospital appointments and those who need to travel with them, on those who serve on the local health board, and on local businesses. Apex fares are available, but extra conditions always require to be fulfilled, including staying away on the Saturday, which is not suitable for many island businesses.

Our particular problem is that the air services to the northern isles operate on a marginal profit. I suspect that any route could be operated profitably if one was prepared to tolerate a low standard of service and high fares. It is therefore important to establish what sort of benchmark service should be provided. To that extent, I should be interested to hear the Minister's views on the application of public service obligation orders to services such as those to Orkney and Shetland.

A few days ago, a travel agent in my constituency told me something about the Saab planes that are used on the northern isles routes. They are often smaller than needed and are clearly unsuitable in many ways, but they are being used because of the marginal nature of the routes. Those planes do not have the necessary capacity; technical difficulties and breakdowns often result. Another plane that would be much more suitable for the northern isles routes would be the Dash 7, but that is not open to us because of the small margins available to those operating on those routes. I suggest to the Minister that the imposition of public service obligation orders would allow improvements in the quality of the service.

We all accept that subsidy should be given to transport in the rest of the country, in the form of roads and railways. Why should those island communities who have to rely on ferries and air services be treated any differently? When one lives on an island, Mr. Amess, transport becomes something of an obsession. I could bore those in the Chamber for the rest of the day with this subject, but I see that I have had my five minutes.

12.4 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that one need not live on an island to become obsessed with transport. It can become an obsession even for a Member who represents Carshalton and Wallington, which is in suburbia.

I shall confine my remarks to a few points, as the Liberal Democrats have made a heavyweight contribution to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate and raising his concerns in a constructive way. The general tone of the debate has been constructive and I now feel much better informed about services to the Isles of Scilly. My hon. Friend spoke eloquently about the problems with those services and I shall listen carefully to the Minister's response to see whether she can assist him and his constituents.

I echo my hon. Friend's concerns about Railtrack's plans to shut England off from Cornwall over the peak Easter holiday period and I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to talk to Railtrack, which is in administration, about those plans to see whether those important works could be undertaken sooner or rescheduled for a time that would be more convenient to the tourist trade. I also hope that the Minister will have time to respond specifically to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) regarding an urgent request for tender documents to be issued to enable the ferry service to which he referred to proceed.

There is no doubt that rural areas—where up to one in five people do not have access to a car—suffer disproportionately from poor access to transport. It is clear that the way to solve the problem is through bus and community transport services, as there are no rail services at all in many rural areas.

Although the number of passengers using buses has declined, we should not accept that that decline is inevitable. In London, where bus regulation was retained, the number of bus users has increased by 8 per cent., whereas outside London, where bus services were deregulated, the number of bus users decreased by 9 per cent.

Mr. Andrew Turner

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right about rural areas, but does he accept that the same does not apply to some urban areas outside London?

Tom Brake

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I am simply saying that we should not assume that bus use will decline, because there are measures that can halt such a decline. For example, bus regulation or reform of quality partnerships and quality contracts could allow for changes in fares and frequency of services and ensure the greater flexibility that some hon. Members have requested. In that way, bus services could change according to demand, rather than relying on a top-heavy or contractual process that puts the brakes on new bus services. It should be possible for new services to be provided almost immediately in a way that cannot be achieved with other services, such as rail and light rail.

On rural transport regeneration, we support the fact that the Government have provided additional funds for bus services, but we would like them to go further. We put forward proposals in our costed manifesto for a total of £200 million to be spent each year on a rural transport regeneration fund. We estimate that that would allow about 2,000 new or improved bus services to be provided each year. In considering the introduction of such services, one may also take into account the savings to the national health service that would result from a consequent reduction in road accidents. The average cost of an accident is £140,000; if one reduces road accidents, additional savings can be made elsewhere.

The Government could introduce other measures. They could extend fuel duty rebate to community transport, as other hon. Members have suggested. They could cut car tax to make people pay little or nothing on the least polluting cars. The price of public transport is a problem, and something must be done to assist bus customers, even when such services are available. I suggest free off-peak travel on local buses and reductions for students.

I can see that the Minister wants me to draw my remarks to a conclusion. Before I do, I want to ask what progress has been made on increasing access to bus services, a measure used as an indicator in the Transport 2010 plan. Of the 500 or so rural transport projects due within three years of the plan's launch, how many have been delivered? Are the Government on track to deliver all 500?

12.10 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I extend the compliments of the season to you, Mr. Amess, and to all hon. Members present, including the Minister. I also express my party's commiserations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his wife on their sad news today. We wish them well in future.

I shall keep my remarks brief, because I want the Minister to have a chance to reply fully. I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on obtaining the debate, which has thrown up much interesting information, not least from some of the remote parts of the United Kingdom, which are often forgotten. He has done the House a service by raising the matter, which especially interests me because his constituency and mine belong to the south-west region. It is a huge region, extending from the Isles of Scilly to the constituency of my neighbour in the north, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). If ever there was an example to show why regional government does not work, this is it. In many respects the requirements of our areas are as different as chalk and cheese.

The hon. Member for St. Ives did not draw hon. Members' attention to a matter to which I shall refer. In a letter dated 21 December 2001, Louisa Britten, the deputy policy adviser for the south-west region, stated: Following the announcement, on Wednesday 5th December 2001, a meeting of all local authorities in the South West was held to discuss the implications of the provisional announcement. The implications were that the settlement for the southwest region, as announced that day in the House, was pretty poor. Further meetings are being arranged with the relevant Ministers in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to discuss the settlement. If we do not have a reasonable settlement, the transport services in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for St. Ives will suffer, compared with those in the rest of the country. The issue is not only more money but equity of distribution in the formula. That is why we look forward to the Government's redistributing the formula. We want that to be done as soon as possible; we do not want to wait two or three years.

The hon. Member for St. Ives raised some interesting points, which I have time only to skate over. As he is aware, there has been significant investment in road networks in his region during the past two decades. The motorway network extends from Exeter, with two trunk roads—the A30 via the Okehampton bypass and the A38 via Plymouth—into Cornwall. My area has had no similar investment in road infrastructure, and urgently needs it. The A417 and A419, which is now a national network road—a vital short-cut road—that extends from the M4 to the M5, needs a so-called missing link. One can travel from the island of Sicily in Italy to Glasgow on dual carriageway, with a little missing link in the middle of my constituency. My constituency suffers serious accidents and fatalities because of that missing link. The DTLR has put in place a study under the Babtie Group. I urge the Department to act quickly on its findings.

In the short time left to me, I want to mention trains, as have many hon. Members. Train infrastructure is important in all rural areas. I have a huge rural constituency which extends to 1,000 square miles and contains 110 villages and 10 market towns. Trains are a vital form of transport there, as they are for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who made an excellent speech. Will the Minister consider those rural services, which could be improved for relatively small sums?

My neighbour, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), referred to the upgrade of the single-track line from Swindon to Kemble and Cheltenham. That would be a huge infrastructure boost for his constituency and mine. Another rail infrastructure improvement would be the upgrading of the Hereford line via Moreton-in-Marsh. The hon. Gentleman did not refer to the possibility of reopening some rural stations, but I have been involved in a campaign to reopen the Chipping Campden station on that line, for example.

The industrial action that is affecting South West Trains will mean that falls in service will continue to be experienced by those in the south-west, who have already experienced falls since 2000 from 84.3 per cent. to 73.6 per cent. That is bound to get worse as a result of the industrial action. We want proper, forward-looking decisions to be taken on investment in our railways. As a result of Railtrack's being put into administration, such forward planning does not exist. I have asked many detailed questions about the Virgin Cross Country franchise route, which might help the south-west, but have not received any satisfactory replies. Will the Minister address that issue, as it is an important national infrastructure project?

I am fully in favour of beefing up bus services in rural areas, which was another issue referred to by the hon. Member for Stroud. We received a briefing from the Disability Rights Commission on the matter. Bus and rail services should be fully accessible to disabled people. It is curious that the Government have a 10-year target for increasing bus services by only 10 per cent., whereas the target for increasing rail travel over the same period is 50 per cent. Will the Minister address that problem?

I must leave the Minister time to reply, as she has been asked a range of questions about ferries, rail and roads in our more remote areas, which are wonderful places to travel and have some excellent facilities. I can tell the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that I enjoyed a very acceptable dram of Highland Park whisky over the recess. I encourage all hon. Members to boost tourism in rural areas by paying such visits, as that is one way in which we can help those areas.

12.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for securing the debate and to all hon. Members who have taken part. The debate has been helpful, positive and constructive. If I do not answer all the questions, it will be only because of time constraints, but I will deal with as many as I can.

First, I join with all other hon. Members in expressing my sincere condolences to the Browns for the loss of their daughter, which was a dreadful tragedy for them.

I shall consider what we are doing to improve rural transport while addressing specific local issues, including strategic issues for Cornwall and the south-west connected with that area's location, which has done much to cause transport problems. I shall also refer to ferry services.

The Government are determined to improve transport as much in rural areas such as Cornwall as in big cities. We want rural communities to be thriving and prosperous, and we recognise the importance of transport's role in that. We want, too, to boost tourism, as the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said. Our vision of how transport can contribute to a rejuvenated rural England was set out more than a year ago in the White Paper entitled "Our countryside: the future". It emphasised the need for locally provided services in rural areas to reduce long-distance travelling and, in particular, for better quality public transport provision that is flexible enough to be truly responsive to the needs of rural communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Member for Cotswold emphasised the importance of bus services in achieving that.

Much has been done over the past year to implement the White Paper's vision for rural transport. More than £40 million will be spent during this financial year alone on the rural bus subsidy grant to provide extra local bus services to rural communities, and we are providing more flexibility within that grant scheme so that 20 per cent. can go to existing services. Nowhere can our drive to improve rural public transport across England be better seen than in Cornwall. Last year the county was acknowledged by my Department as a centre of excellence for rural transport.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned the need for more demand-responsive services, especially in relation to buses. I want to highlight the role of the rural bus challenge in stimulating innovation in the provision and promotion of rural public transport, including new services of that type. In last year's challenge competition we gave £21 million of funding for 51 innovative rural bus projects, from novel bus infrastructure improvements to flexible, demand-responsive minibus and taxibus schemes. We shall announce the results of the latest challenge competition shortly. That will be another big boost for the more innovative types of rural bus service.

Earlier in the current financial year, the Government established through the Countryside Agency two important rural transport programmes—an enhanced rural transport partnership scheme and the new parish transport fund—to enable rural communities to develop transport solutions to meet local needs. Over the next three years those two programmes will together spend £47 million on a range of projects. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) asked whether the Government were on target in respect of the 500 new schemes that were proposed in the policy statement, and the answer is yes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred to community transport. We recognise that that sector plays a vital role in catering for needs that cannot be met by scheduled commercial public transport services. Above all, it provides flexible solutions that are tailored to meet the needs of local people. We made it clear in the rural White Paper that we wanted an expansion of the community transport sector, and we will shortly publish a consultation paper on the changes that might be made to reduce barriers to its expansion. We are also committed to extending the bus fuel duty rebate scheme to a wide range of community transport services, and we shall introduce regulations shortly. I hope that that reassures hon. Members who are interested in such services.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on his remarkable diligence in always pressing the concerns of his constituency. He has raised the profile of the Isle of Wight as never before. He is an island in himself. I shall deal with his points about ferry services later. On port regulations, I shall give him a considered written response. I shall look at the statistics on disadvantage in his area. I am aware, partly due to his pressing of the matter, that there are problems in his constituency arising from the number of prisons, but I was not aware of the other factors, and I shall send him the details that we have.

The hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) raised some important points about ferry services and illustrated extremely well the disadvantages that people in rural and island communities can face. I shall take the matter up with the Scottish Executive, who are responsible for the bulk of such issues. On public service obligations, I shall give the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland a considered written response.

I want to deal with some of the south-west issues, but as I have only a few minutes left, I must go through them at a canter. I shall send a written response to the helpful note that the hon. Member for St. Ives sent to my office.

Andrew George

I appreciate the Minister's response to the issues that she has raised, but there were three specific questions that I outlined both beforehand and in the debate: the Easter bridge closure, the ferries and improvements to rail services in east Cornwall.

Ms Keeble

The hon. Gentleman raised issues concerning regional transport links. Each English region is required to develop a regional transport strategy that sets out key regional transport priorities. These will be informed by multi-modal studies, which will provide integrated solutions to major transport problems around the country. As I am sure the hon.Gentleman is aware, the south-west area is subject to a multi-modal study and the report is due in April. It will recommend improvements to reduce journey times to Cornwall and to increase the reliability of such journeys. I am sure that it will address the strategic regional issues that underlie his remarks this morning.

Many hon. Members have raised issues relating to railways, and I should point out that a statement from the Strategic Rail Authority is due next week in which it will set out its investment plans. Sir Alastair Morton is no longer the chairman of the SRA, and we shall be examining the way in which that investment plan addresses the issues raised this morning.

On the reports about the closure of the bridge over the Easter weekend, Railtrack has consulted the train operating companies, as it is required to do. It has made arrangements to ensure that the closures will not affect the Friday and Monday of the bank holiday weekend, which are the peak travelling times. The train operating companies were satisfied that these closures were the best solution to the difficult choice that occurs when one must make improvements to infrastructure that require possession of the railways. I shall write to the train operating companies involved to establish whether there was consultation and whether mechanisms exist for consulting passengers and other stakeholders such as tourist agencies about the timing of such closures. It is in everybody's interests to work together to ensure that the commuter services keep operating to make the most of that peak tourist period. It is a question of all stakeholders working together to find the best possible solutions.

Finally, I want to turn—I recognise that this will be brief—to island transport. Ferry services in the United Kingdom are expected to operate on a commercial basis unless there is a compelling reason why they cannot do so. As a general rule, my Department does not directly subsidise ferry services in England, but English local authorities have the power to subsidise local ferry services if they wish, and several do. I understand the point about the replacement of the passenger vessel to the Isles of Scilly. The Council of the Isles of Scilly is hoping to seek a European objective 1 grant for a replacement passenger vessel. It would be premature to discuss its proposal in detail, but I am sure that the Cornwall objective one partnership will look sympathetically at any grant application.

There will, however, be issues to address involving eligibility and value for money. I know that officials in the Government office for the south-west are looking forward to seeing shortly the report on the consultancy study commissioned by the Council of the Isles of Scilly, which we hope will make clearer the extent to which there is a case for supporting a replacement vessel. I say to the hon. Member for St. Ives that it is important that we receive that consultancy report at an early date so that we can assess it properly.

In conclusion, I hope that I have addressed the main concerns that were expressed by Members of all political persuasions, and shown that we understand the difficulties in rural areas. We have put in place the planning, some of the money, and innovative small schemes—micro-management, as it was described—that can indeed make a difference to the quality of life of people in rural areas.

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