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Transport (Rural Areas)

Volume 885: debated on Monday 3 February 1975

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11.38 p.m.

I do not intend to go over the whole ground of rural transport once again, because many hon. Friends of mine and other hon. Members of the House have raised this matter on many occasions during the past 12 months. I want the Under-Secretary when he replies to have time to spell out exactly what the Government intend to do about the disastrous cost of travel to work, to shops, to visit relatives, dentists, doctors, etc., in rural areas.

There is overwhelming evidence to which I feel sure the Minister's attention must have been drawn by his civil servants. First, the Conservative Government's Road Traffic Bill contained clauses with regard to mini-buses. Later there was my Adjournment debate on 10th April 1974, which was replied to by the then Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. Then there was a debate on the 26th July 1974 when the Government turned down the proposals to free mini-buses from licensing. During that debate the Minister said:
"I think that we may need a more radical approach to try to do something for rural transport.… It seemed to me that, in the first instance, we needed to get all aspects of the operators' and the unions' views together and then to bring in the local authorities. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State chaired the meetings on that basis.… However, I hope that out of these consultations with the parties principally concerned—the operators, the local authorities and the unions—we shall get more broadly acceptable and workable proposals than we have here."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th July 1974; Vol. 877, c. 2030.]
I hope that from the Under-Secretary of State who is to reply—I am glad to see him because I know what a keen interest he takes in rural transport—we shall have something really worth while to listen to and that he will tell us what the Government have been doing during the past six or seven months and what they intend to do about rural transport, which has gone from bad to worse.

After the debate on 26th July there was the Adjournment debate on 29th November 1974 initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer). The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) initiated another debate as recently as 15th January this year. That shows how keenly aware all parts of the House are of the problems of rural transport.

Finally, I should mention that on 29th January this year in another place Baroness Stedman asked whether
"it was a grossly unfair allocation of the transport revenue support grant, in that the Greater London Council had £10 per head of the population while in counties like mine, which is Cambridgeshire"—
which adjoins my constituency—
"it worked out at 21p per head?"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29th January 1975; Vol. 356, c. 478.]
Lord Melchett, replying, did not deny the figures—£10 to 21p per head—but, strangely enough, could not agree that it was unfair.

Apart from the last mentioned question and answer, the debates have been similar in that Ministers replying have congratulated the Members concerned on raising the matter, have expressed concern, sorrow, and even anguish at what has been going on in rural transport, and have said that they were having urgent consultations. They have also been similar in that, as a result, nothing has been done. They are dissimilar in that every time we have had a new Adjournment debate or general debate the cost of rural transport has gone up yet again.

Last weekend there arrived on my desk a new journal to my knowledge called "Surveyor: Public Authority Technology". It is dated 24th January 1975. In it appears an interesting article on rural transport. In a panel in the middle of the article appears the following:
"The new system of transport supplementary grants and transport policies and programmes which will come into effect on 1st April will encourage the new county councils to reassess their transport policies and priorities and relate their assessment of the rural transport needs of their areas to their total programmes.—Gordon Oakes, Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, House of Commons 10th April 1974."
Underneath that, in the same panel, there appears the following:
"What does appear from the Transport Supplementary Grant provision is that non-Metropolitan Counties have got less. No benefit this year at all for shire counties—David Saybum, public transport co-ordinator, Cambridgeshire County Council, last week."
I have received voluminous correspondence—as have many other rural Members—which shows that there are two matters which need to be tackled urgently. First, social life in the rural areas is deteriorating rapidly, particularly for the elderly and the young. Meetings of women's institutes, shopping visits, necessary visits to doctors, dentists, social services centres, and youth club meetings are all suffering as a result of the increased cost of travel and the declining bus services in my part of the world.

Secondly, the cost of travelling to work is becoming so expensive that men and women are finding it more profitable to stay unemployed in their villages than go out to work. It is becoming so costly to travel to work, with petrol alone costing £4 to £5 a week. In many cases people are earning more than they would by staying in their villages, but they pay tax on their earnings, whereas the man who stays at home does not have the cost of running his car and he is not taxed on his unemployment pay. One result of all this is that people are moving to the towns and leaving the villages depopulated, or populated only by the retired and weekenders.

My local paper, which came out on Friday, mentioned that I was to have this Adjournment debate, and in the short time since then I have had more than 20 letters delivered or sent to me on this question of the cost of travelling to work. One writer says:
"I work five and a half days a week. I travel 240 miles per week, and with the increase in the cost of petrol it means a weekly outlay of £5·76 for petrol alone, without wear and tear on my car. It seems most unfair compared with other people who are working in towns."
One firm writes to say that it employs seven of my constituents at its factory and the average distance to and from work is about 30 miles.

Another man who was employed by the Eastern Electricity Board was transferred to a town about 17 miles away following reorganisation. He has a round trip of 34 miles and uses 5½ gallons of petrol weekly at a cost, he says, of £4·50.

I could go on quoting from letters which I have received from people who have been extremely hard hit by the increase in costs.

My constituency has in it more than 100 villages and two small and one medium-sized towns. A large proportion of my constituents have to travel outside our boundaries to bigger towns. In the case of my constituency it is King's Lynn or Thetford, two overspill towns, or Norwich. The journeys are anything between 20 and 50 miles a day. I know that the Minister can work out the increasing cost that this involves.

I therefore make the following requests. The social needs of rural areas—further education, amusements and so on, which are necessary in rural areas, and the visits to relatives—need an immediate introduction of laws to free the buses from controls. The Conservative Government talked about this for far too long. We spent over two years discussing it with the unions and the bus proprietors. The present Government have also been talking with the various bodies. Surely by now we should be able to come to some conclusion.

I do not believe that mini buses would solve the problem of people getting to work. I do not believe, either, that the rural areas can be singled out for special treatment on this score. Everywhere the cost of getting to work should be allowed as a charge against tax. Many of my constituents feel that it is unfair that people who are assessed through PAYE have no chance of setting the costs of running their motor cars against their tax in the way that an ordinary business man is able to do. Instead they must bear the full brunt of the cost of petrol, the licence fee, the insurance and so on. A man who pays PAYE and who is hit by the rising costs get no opportunity of easing his burden in this way.

I do not mind what the Government do so long as they stop talking, stop sympathising and do something sensible to help.

11.53 p.m.

When the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) last raised the question of rural transport in an Adjournment debate his main concern was the deterioration in public transport and the dependence of many of his constituents, including a large number of retired people, on some form of public transport for access to shops, banks, clinics and the various social services. The problem also faces shift workers in many of our towns where there is no night service. Large numbers of people are involved, and it is surprising how far some of them have to travel. The problem is, therefore, widespread.

The position had been exacerbated, I think, because, in the case of the hon. Member's constituency, of a major restructuring of bus services carried out by the main provider of bus services in the area—the Eastern Counties subsidiary of the National Bus Company. I understand that this restructuring had been put into operation after close consultations with the local authorities affected, but that the bus company was able to modify some of its new routes so as to continue to serve villages which had originally feared that they would lose all their remaining services.

It is worth mentioning this to emphasise the point that there is still a considerable network of stage carriage bus services in the South-West Norfolk area, fewer perhaps than 10 or 20 years ago, but the bus industry has contracted overall, squeezed by falling volume of demand and the pressure of rising costs. It is ironical in the context of the present debate that the main factor undermining the economics of the bus industry over the past 20 years has been the growth in the use of the private car.

While the bus operators struggled to keep going the network of services they had been accustomed to run, a considerable number of people switched to the car because of its greater convenience and the instant accessibility it gave them, thus making a tremendous dent in the overall volume of demand for public transport. Others again moved into rural areas recognising that bus services were often infrequent and liable to be withdrawn but thinking that they could overcome these disadvantages through the use of cars. While bus operators found themselves trying to cover costs, with a high labour content, which tended to rise faster than the general rate of inflation, from a dwindling number of regular users the relative advantages of the car in terms of perceived costs—petrol and oil—became all the more attractive.

Since the Adjournment debate last April, however, events have taken a further, cruel, turn. The crude price of oil has risen roughly five-fold in 15 months, and I am afraid that there is simply no way in which we as a nation can get round the unpleasant consequences of this. It has made a dramatic impact on the cost of private motoring.

The hon. Member has made the suggestion—indeed, it was one which he made last year, and it has been echoed by many others who are concerned about the economic basis of life in rural communities—that people who have to travel long distances to work, both farm workers and people who commute to a local centre of employment—should receive some sort of tax allowance.

Any question of differential tax treatment is, of course, a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was mentioned in the Adjournment debate raised by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) which was answered by a Treasury Minister. This is the case whether we are talking about an income tax allowance for travelling to work, a regionally-differentiated vehicle excise duty, or relief, from VAT or duty on petrol. These subjects have, of course, been recently aired in this House and Treasury Ministers have made their views known.

There are the problems of defining a rural area and of distinguishing between essential and non-essential journeys. There are those with two homes, one in the country and one in town, and those who by choice live in a rural area and commute long distances to work. Any special relief, in whatever form, is likely to lead to further dissatisfaction as between people in different areas and people within the same areas whose expenditure patterns differ. The revenue lost as a result of any such relief would have to be made up either by increases in other forms of taxation or by reductions in public expenditure. Inevitably some other group of taxpayers would object to this change on the valid ground that it discriminated against their interests.

I thought I had made it clear that I was not asking for a differential. I was asking for a tax relief for all travel to work, which would be fair all over the board and which would not give rise to the difficulties mentioned by the Under-Secretary.

In preparing an answer for an Adjournment debate one must anticipate what is likely to arise. I have outlined some of the problems.

Many hon. Members have, because of the nature of their work, a home in London and one in the country. There are great problems as to which address is given as the home address. This applies to many people who have two homes. Any special concession would be regarded as discrimination against certain people. I am not saying that something cannot be done and that people are not considering the matter. I am saying that complicated problems arise. It would be nice to think that it would be possible to achieve fairness. I would be happy if we could achieve even rough justice, which is not only an objective but is also an objective quality. People tend to feel strongly about any concession from which they are not benefiting. I am not saying that nothing will be done or that nothing is being done.

I am sure that the House listened with the closest attention to the hon. Member's arguments about the benefits which might come from a relaxation of the bus licensing laws. The House has discussed this several times in the past, and has recognised the complexity of the problem. The principle of a free-for-all in lift-giving and operating for hire or reward is attractive at first sight, but equally there are dangers—for example, the danger that existing bus services might be further eroded by new and uncontrolled competition, the danger that unlicensed operators would skim the cream from the market when the going was good and then, because they have no obligation to provide a service under licence, leave the public in the lurch when it suited them to discontinue their operations. This sort of thing would in many cases leave the public in a worse position than at present.

I am not saying that the relaxation of bus licensing is not capable in any circumstances of providing transport where it is needed. But I say that this is a problem which requires very careful study of all the possibilities and likely consequences, and thorough consultation with all the interests concerned, particularly as it was only in April last year that county councils in England and Wales assumed the responsibility under Section 203 of the Local Government Act
"to develop policies which will promote the provision of a co-ordinated and efficient system of public passenger transport to meet the needs of the county".
As the hon. Gentleman said, I am holding discussions with both sides of the bus industry, and with local authority associations, on the problems of rural transport. I am also taking the opportunity of seeing some of these problems in their local setting. For this purpose I visited Taunton last Thursday, 30th January, to talk to representatives of the Somerset and Devon County Councils, and of both sides of the local bus industry, and I shall be visiting the North-West later this month. I very much hope that these discussions will lead to specific proposals which will bring some help to those affected by the lack of transport in many rural areas.

Another approach to the problem which has attracted a lot of attention recently is the idea of some sort of two-tier pricing system for petrol, or of special vouchers for people living in particular areas, or other special pricing arrangements. I know that the Department of Energy has been giving a lot of thought to the problems of rural areas and is looking at whatever measures are available which might help people affected.

As has been made clear in a number of recent statements both within and outside the House by my colleagues in the Department of Energy, no decision has yet been taken on a two-tier pricing system. But if such a system were to be introduced, and the lower price were less than the present price, people in rural areas would, of course, gain some relief from the present high prices, but only in the same way as all other motorists. As was also made clear by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy when replying to Questions on 20th January, it would not be possible to pick out special groups of motorists for preferential treatment, since to do so would only lead to claims for similar treatment from others equally affected.

It may be that, in view of the sharp rise in the cost of private motoring, some people who at present travel to work by car may be able to switch to bus. Overall there should be an increase in the demand for public transport, and to the extent that this happens the economics of bus operations should improve, and it may be possible to expand the network at some points even in a predominantly rural area such as South-West Norfolk.

As it is, the bus companies provide a number of stage bus services in South-West Norfolk suitable for journeys to work at the main centres of employment in the area—such places as King's Lynn and Thetford—and further to the east from East Dereham into Norwich. I should be surprised if these services ran to capacity at the moment, and I have no doubt that the bus operators would be very willing to consider putting on further services if firm demand could be identified.

But, even where services exist, there is no escaping the fact that they are expensive to run, and the money must be found somehow, either from the fares box, or from the ratepayer or the taxpayer. I know, for example, that most subsidiaries of the National Bus Company have applied, or are in process of applying, to the Traffic Commissioners for substantial fare increases in order to cover the sharp increases in costs they have experienced in recent months. These increases in costs are being experienced by bus operators generally. No sector of the bus industry is immune.

But we should not lose sight of the scope for flexibility which exists within the present system. The new duties of the county councils provide a means of developing it. It may well be, for example, that much of the demand for public transport comes from areas which are too scattered to warrant the use of a conventional bus. But there may be scope—I use this merely as an illustration, because I am now getting to know far more about the problem as I see it on the ground—for feeder services of, possibly, mini-buses or post buses which would serve the outlying areas and connect with the basic network of conventional services. Again, there may be scope for varying existing licences to enable the services to cater for other villages not at present served.

Also, it is not uncommon for major employers in local centres of employment to arrange their own services under contract. There may be scope here to extend such services to cover a wider area or to make services provided in this way available for other passengers.

It is wrong to suggest that the present system is so rigid that nothing can be done except what is already done. But there must be close liaison between the local authority and the bus operators. If any worthwhile ideas emerge from such discussions, it would be as well to discuss them with the traffic commissioners for the area to see whether there are any good reasons why they should not be adopted.

I realise very well that the investigations and discussions in this matter are extremely slow. I am to have more meetings this week. I assure the hon. Gentleman, none the less, that I am concerned about the whole matter. If he turns up the debate on the Second Reading of his own party's Road Traffic Bill during 1973, he will see that I intervened on that occasion. But I must be honest and say that I am learning a great deal as I go about the country and speak to representatives of all sides of the industry—the county councils, the bus operators, the trade unions and the traffic commissioners.

It is a thorny problem. We are anxious not to take the easy route where it seems simple to relax the licensing rules in a particular instance. If it is to be done, it must be done not in that selective way but in such a way that we shall be able to improve the position in the rural areas—and in the towns, for the shift workers to whom I referred—without at the same time undermining whatever is good in the existing system so that we are left with an even worse public transport service than we have at present.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.