HC Deb 16 July 2003 vol 409 cc123-31WH 3.30 pm
Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)

My contribution to this debate is part of a cross-party initiative by Norfolk Members. I should mention in particular the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), who cannot be present, as well as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who is here, the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), who is stuck in a Select Committee, and the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). I am also delighted to see that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) is present—to support the case that is being made, I suspect.

Concerns were first brought to our attention by all the community transport schemes in Norfolk, as well as the two rural transport partnerships in the county. We are all indebted to them, and to the Community Transport Association nationally, for their guidance and hard work.

Before setting out our concerns, it is important to mention that there was some discussion about which Department should respond to this debate. It is clear that the Department for Transport has the main responsibility, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has responsibility for the Countryside Agency, which provides grants, usually on a three-year basis, for community transport schemes. I hope that this debate will reinforce the need for coordination between those two Departments. The Department for Transport, in particular, needs to be aware of a developing funding crisis that is facing community transport not only in Norfolk but across the country.

The main message that I want to get across is that the Government must be applauded for providing funds to pump-prime new community transport schemes. Those have mushroomed throughout the country, and that is good. It is likely that such schemes will be the most viable model for rural public transport in the future. They are flexible, they are demand responsive and they tend to use vehicles that are small and environmentally friendly. We have all witnessed double-decker buses careering around country lanes, usually entirely empty.

The great danger is that all the good progress could be lost. The CTA—the national body—and others do not want confrontation: that is not what this debate is about. They want to work with the Government to ensure that this exciting development over the past few years is maintained and enhanced. We also aim to be constructive as a group of MPs, and we hope that the Minister will respond in a similar vein.

I wish to say something about the Norfolk schemes. There are four community transport schemes, which have been set up with rural transport partnership—RTP—funding provided by the Countryside Agency. One of them is in South Norfolk—the Diss and District Community Transport Association. It runs a minibus dial-a-ride scheme and a door-to-door service for people in rural areas. The scheme is operated by a small group of employed people, together with drivers. Its RTP funding runs out next year. The North Norfolk Community Transport Partnership in my constituency is a similar operation whose funding also runs out next year.

The North Walsham Area Community Transport Association is also in my constituency. There is a full-time co-ordinator and a part-time administrator. They operate on a low cost base from a rent-free office in North Walsham. The association has funding from the Countryside Agency, which got the whole thing established, at a rate of £18,000 per year. That has already ended—it came to an end earlier this year. It gets some funding from the county council, and the district and town and parish councils. It gets income from fares and from charges for other transport services and membership subscriptions. However, it is now living off its reserves and it cannot carry on like this for long.

The association was founded in 1999. I want to make it clear that that was made possible by Government pump-priming. The association covers 45 parishes and provides regular dial-a-ride services to local market towns, which get people from small village communities into their local town. Secondly, it provides transport to appointments at local hospitals, GPs' surgeries, dentists and so on—that is crucial in rural areas. Thirdly, it provides transport for organised groups that meet regularly for social gatherings, such as lunch clubs for elderly and disabled people.

The association also has a programme of excursions. It uses 10 volunteer drivers locally, so it is a real community effort. It also runs a hospital bus, with a paid driver, from north-east Norfolk to the new Norfolk and Norwich university hospital, which is five miles to the south of Norwich: not an accessible location for anyone relying on public transport. There has been a steady growth in the use of the association's services, and there are now some 420 return passenger trips every month. Users are mainly elderly and disabled people who cannot walk to the normal bus stop and who benefit from the fact that they can be picked up outside their front door. There are other passengers without access to a car. The services are very valuable, and passengers describe them as a lifeline, a godsend, and say that it is important that we keep those services.

The fourth scheme in Norfolk with the benefit of rural transport partnership funding is called "kickstart". It is a really innovative moped loan scheme that enables young people, primarily, to access employment and training. If a person is stuck in a small village that does not have a normal bus service, it is very difficult to get access to employment. The scheme has helped a significant number of people in Norfolk to access employment and training; its funding runs out next year as well.

There are other schemes with alternative sources of funding: a Norwich door-to-door scheme, of which I suspect the hon. Member for Norwich, North is aware. That scheme is specifically for disabled people and those with other mobility problems who are excluded from using traditional forms of public transport. There are other, existing schemes that have used RTP funding to expand their services. The West Norfolk community transport project, an excellent community car scheme, covers six parishes around Heacham. It is primarily used by people who need to get to hospital appointments. There are also the Swaffham rural links and Wymondham flexibus services. There are lots of schemes cropping up all over the place, all with the benefit of that central funding; the schemes tackle social exclusion and rural isolation and they give people independence. Last week, I met a group of residents from Wigston in Leicestershire; it looked like they were going to lose their housing estate bus service. For those elderly people, that bus is a lifeline.

The Government's social exclusion unit recently published a report entitled "Making the Connections: Final Report on Transport and Social Exclusion". The North Walsham association was used as a case study in the chapter entitled "Solutions to the problem". The chapter demonstrates how community transport reduces social exclusion.

The common problem is where to get sustainable funding once the pump-priming ends. Schemes have done an awful lot of work to secure alternative funding. The North Norfolk Community Transport Partnership says that We have sought to secure alternative funding through trusts, Town and Parish donations and other funding bodies. However, in the current financial and investment climate, whereby many trusts have seen their stock-market investment funds seriously depleted over the last year, such bodies are unable to offer any substantial financial support. Most Town and parish councils have very limited funds and the most our organisation has ever been offered is a donation of £250, (this being from quite well-off town councils such as Fakenham and Holt), otherwise donations usually amount to something in the region of £25-£50. That level of funding simply will not support the services that they provide.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this Adjournment debate, which has the support of all Norfolk Members. Following from what he just said, it seems to many of us—I know that the Minister will be aware of this—that sustainable funding is the crucial element. Our fear at the meeting that we attended on 6 June was that as more and more schemes are set up, there is a danger that those set up behind them will collapse because of lack of funding. What we are looking for from the Minister is more suggestions of how we can gel sustainable funding. During the past four years, Norfolk county council has spent from £171,000 to a planned £318,000 on community transport, but that may lead to cuts in local bus services. I support what the hon. Gentleman says.

Norman Lamb

I am grateful for that intervention, and I entirely agree with the Gentleman's points. The county council has explained to me that the only way in which it can get extra funding for community transport is to reduce subsidies on traditional bus services. That is a difficult process and takes time to achieve. Wholesale axing of existing services is simply not an option, because so many people rely on them.

The problem is that there is a very significant amount of money flowing in from the Countryside Agency to get those schemes started, but because so many started at roughly the same time, they are all coming to the end of their three-year funding period in a narrow time frame. Consequently, there is simply no prospect of the county council being able to take on the full burden following the withdrawal of Countryside Agency funding.

There sometimes seems to be an obsession with funding only new and innovative schemes. That is important, but must not happen to the detriment of other schemes that are already working successfully. There is a danger of organisations straining to come up with some new package simply to attract funding. There is also a danger of spending a disproportionate amount of time pursuing funding, which is an inefficient use of management time. The process of applying for funding, then losing out in the bidding process, can be soul destroying. Uncertainty of funding will also lead to those employed in the sector seeking more security elsewhere, resulting in a loss of the skills and experience that need to be retained in the sector to build on the very successful foundations that have been laid.

One of the local operators in Norfolk has said: Such 'short-term' funding has hampered an expansionist ethos for our service and the general feeling with our members and that of many dial-a-ride operators is one of an impending 'shut-down' of the service as a whole. That is not conducive to an expansion of such schemes.

I am sure that the Minister will accept that the schemes are unlikely ever to be profitable. They provide a public service in some of the most remote areas of the country. They fill the gaps that conventional transport cannot fill. Those running the schemes tell us that they may well be able to survive with tapering funding. They also say that, ideally, they would like to be locally funded, a view that I strongly share, but there must be some transmission mechanism to get from nationally provided pump-priming to sustainable local funding. Three years is simply not long enough to build a strong passenger base and for the county council to reorganise its funding to provide sufficient support for community transport.

Those in the sector feel that they are caught in something of a tussle between central and local government, both believing in community transport but neither coming up with a basis for sustainable funding. The Government's commitment in principle is very clear. The 10-year transport plan declares: There will be additional funding for other types of service than the traditional sort, including those run by the voluntary sector, community projects (such as the setting up and operation of social car and community minibus schemes) and flexible innovative schemes (which could include taxi-based services). The Government are there in principle, but the funding situation seems to be less optimistic than that statement of principle might suggest.

The Countryside Agency itself appears to be in something of a funding crisis. We have been told of concerns of appalling financial planning, and grossly inadequate communications. I do not know whether that is true, but that is the concern that has been expressed. An embargo was imposed on applications to the vital villages programme, part of the funding stream for community transport, back in mid-April. Although the embargo was lifted in June, it seems that many transport services due to receive funding will still have to be shelved. That inevitably means that much of the work by voluntary groups throughout the country will be wasted and expectations will be dashed. The Countryside Agency claims that that was because of an over-subscription in applications for rural transport partnership funding, but many believe that it is really because of over-spending on mapping work undertaken by the Countryside Agency.

Will the Minister investigate the situation? I appreciate that it is not his departmental responsibility, but it appears to be putting at risk an important part of the Government's transport strategy for rural areas. Will he also consider calling a summit of everyone with an interest in community transport? It could include the funders, local authorities, operators and service users, coming together with a view to ensuring that existing schemes are given the opportunity to flourish and a second aim of expanding rather than contracting the network.

Finally, as Paul Gray, co-ordinator of the North Walsham Area Community Transport Association, says: Quietly, and without too much fuss, community transport does a great job every day. Any community bus driver will instantly recognise the unreserved appreciation shown by his or her passengers on a frequent basis. The message I carry to you is simple: A modest investment in rural community transport would represent a significant payback in the quality of life in a rural environment.

3.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) not only on securing this debate and providing us with an opportunity to discuss the important role of community transport, but on the manner in which he introduced it. I know that there are concerns and that they are shared throughout parties and different levels of government in many areas, including Norfolk. I shall not dwell on much of what he has already said, but the Department appreciates that community and voluntary transport has a key role to play in all regions of the country, both urban and rural.

As an aside, I should say that the rigidity of the modernisation of the House should be examined. As the hon. Gentleman said, this is clearly a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs debate rather than a Department for Transport debate, but he could have secured a DEFRA Minister to respond only by losing this slot, because of the departmental timetable, and hoping and praying that he got another slot in September, October or the 12th of Never. That point may need to be considered.

Throughout Government, we understand that there are concerns. I should say that I shall render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, so I shall make no promises about chasing up matters that are properly DEFRA's, but ensure that colleagues in DEFRA get notice of the concerns from me as well as simply from reading Hansard.

The hon. Gentleman was right to highlight the social exclusion unit report and the notion of transport as a key factor in overcoming social exclusion in both rural and urban areas. That is important not only for income, gender, race or disability—which are perhaps more relevant factors in urban areas—but for geographic isolation and all that follows from the rural infrastructure.

I shall come on to the specific issues in a moment, but as the hon. Gentleman said, we are talking about, in relative terms, a success story. A lot has happened in recent years, and I commend and thank the many volunteers who work in community transport, as well as those who are employed by the schemes. The breadth of the community transport sector and its activities is important, but we must remember that services are disparate and often run at a local level. When focusing on some of the localised schemes, it is all too easy to lose sight of the sheer scale of the operation in the community transport arena.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Community Transport Association, which represents the majority of schemes throughout the country, estimates that there are some 5,000 schemes in the UK that between them are running some 60,000 minibuses. They do so with the help of a quarter of a million volunteers, and 10,000 full-time paid drivers. They deliver some 5 million trips for almost 2 million people with mobility problems. I do not say that to diminish the problems that the hon. Gentleman referred to concerning the Norfolk-specific schemes, but simply to put the matter into context. By any measure that is an impressive record, and the community transport sector should be very proud of it. It is perhaps all the more impressive when we consider that much of the activity is taking place in the voluntary sector.

We have heard today—and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way in which he raised the matter—that the community and voluntary sector faces many challenges not least in funding, and I fully appreciate the difficulties to which uncertainty over future funding and the complexities of funding applications themselves can give rise. Any scheme will have at least one or two volunteers, if not an employee, simply looking for funding streams, and seeking to translate and fill in the relevant forms. For a small operation, simply pulling together all the information needed for a funding application can be a daunting and time-consuming task.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

I associate myself with the speech math by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). One of the problems is that Norwich is seen as the centre of the universe in Norfolk. It is the cul-de-sac of the nation, and the many elderly people who gravitate into Norfolk—who will increasingly do so during the next few years—demand the right to transport such as buses or rail lines that were closed by Beeching, because they cannot drive cars.

Mr. McNulty

I would not dispute that point either, but the issue of sustainability is key to what the hon. Member for North Norfolk suggests. Having to repeat that time after time for different funders, and then repeating the same exercise, sometimes as soon as the following year, for continuation of that funding, could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Equally, however, we know that community and voluntary transport schemes do not give up easily. With their personal commitment to the people that they serve and their professionalism in providing transport services, they will do everything in their power to ensure that their schemes are able to continue. Indeed, that tenacity and dedication are what has led us to discuss these issues today.

As the hon. Gentleman said, concerns have been expressed about recent funding problems affecting the Countryside Agency's rural transport partnership. The Countryside Agency administers the grant on behalf of DEFRA, not the DFT, and the overall level of funding allocated to the agency as a whole is ultimately the responsibility of DEFRA Ministers. Officials work closely with DEFRA and the Countryside Agency to ensure that the use of the RTP grant is consistent with, and adds value to, the Department's own rural transport programmes.

The RTP received a considerable increase in funding following the publication of the rural White Paper, as hon. Members will know. That includes many community transport enhancements, such as minibuses, and travel co-ordinators. I do not want to introduce a discordant note—I know that some people think that I regard it as my duty to introduce discord where there is consensus—but I do not think that articles such as the one entitled "Bus stops" in The Guardian today by the CTA are terribly helpful or add much to our deliberations on what sustainability is all about. The article is not terribly helpful—it is not terribly accurate—and the words Shaving 6 inches off one of the proposed new lanes of the M25 could probably have covered the costs. are not terribly helpful or useful, either.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk knows that there was a moratorium on the RTP fund for a few weeks, but that has been resolved and £2 million extra has been found. He will also know that DEFRA will review the RTP grant scheme to build on its successes, not to cut it. The outcome of that review will be made available in October and will go through DEFRA's normal budgetary processes to determine future funding. As I have said, I shall ensure that DEFRA gets to learn of the specifics of the Norfolk schemes to which the hon. Gentleman referred. He has kindly said that Norfolk county council has been a major beneficiary of our funding for rural bus services. In fact, Norfolk county council receives the single highest amount of rural bus challenge subsidy grant each year. It is currently over £2.3 million, and it supports 66 services in the county. That support reflects the rural nature of large parts of the county. Norfolk has also been allocated nearly £3 million for eight projects that were successful in the rural bus challenge.

We are studying the regulatory regime and the funding streams that are available because the Department for Transport considers that important. The community voluntary transport schemes are vital in the mix of transport provision. I accept that, in some of the most rural parts of Norfolk, the mix of transport provision is not a mix, but the community transport provision is relied on. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) may regard Norwich as the centre of the universe in terms of Norfolk, but he and others will know that, to all intents and purposes, London is the centre of the universe.

We want to do all that we can to ensure that the voluntary and community schemes thrive. As we have heard today, the funding issue is the key factor in determining how the sector can continue and develop effectively. It is important that all those involved in funding, including national and local government as well as other funding providers, are fully aware of how their decisions can affect the future viability of community schemes. It is important that they can share their experiences, learn from others and develop their funding policies with the broadest understanding of the sector. I accept the important point about the sustainability of the projects.

In August, I shall be hosting a meeting of chief executives of voluntary organisations in the transport sector to discuss the Department's role in support of the voluntary sector, and many other issues. It will include discussion of our direct role as funders of services such as the Community Transport Association's advice service to which we give an annual grant—currently £100,000—as well as other issues that affect the voluntary sector.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

My hon. Friend will know that Derbyshire is at the heart of community transport. It was the area that lobbied for the fuel duty rebate to be extended to community transport services. He knows that, a short time ago, I hosted three seminars for the Community Transport Association about transport and social exclusion. In his discussions with transport organisations, will he take account of the points that arose in the seminars about which I shall give him details?

Mr. McNulty

I was about to reflect on that matter. In addition, officials will be setting up a meeting of the key funders of voluntary transport to discuss funding and what we can do to enable the community and voluntary sectors to develop to the benefit of the communities, both rural and urban, that they serve. I have not been told that I have been invited, but I will ensure that I am.

I was about to say, before my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) intervened, that she has asked me to meet a delegation of hon. Members and others about community transport, social exclusion and much of the work that has developed from the seminars to which she referred. I am happy to do so. I am equally happy either to broaden that meeting to include Norfolk Members, although on reflection, it is more likely that I will have a separate meeting with them about Norfolk—which includes Norwich, of course—to discuss specifically the micro and broader schemes. With hon. Members' indulgence, the meeting will not be held before the recess—as that would give us about 16 hours within which to fix it up.

The resolution of local issues might be better served collectively if the meeting were held after I have forewarned DEFRA about the issues that have been raised in the debate, after I have met the voluntary sectors in August to discuss what they are doing for community transport and after the forum or summit with the key funding bodies. There will then be something of substance to discuss in the meeting about the Norfolk schemes.

We are keenly aware throughout the Government, not only in DEFRA and the Department for Transport, that pump-priming and getting in place vital services is one thing, but that we need to work with others to ensure that such matters are mainstream. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for North Norfolk that local transport programmes and local authorities should pick up such matters. I thank him again not just for instigating this debate, the subject of which is important, but for the tenor and the way in which he introduced it. I am grateful for that, and I will see you all in September or October.