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Bus And Rail Fares (Colne Valley)

Volume 894: debated on Friday 27 June 1975

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4.0 p.m.

On the motion that the House of Commons should now adjourn I raise the urgent question of bus and rail fairs in the valley of the Yorkshire River Colne. The growing concern of many of the 20,000 or so residents of the Colne Valley can be illustrated by the fact that last December the fare for a single journey from the centre of Huddersfield to Linthwaite in the Colne Valley was 7p. By October of this year, if applications which have now been filed for fare increases are granted, as the transport executive expects, the fare for the same journey from Huddersfield to Linthwaite—which is undertaken many times a week by many important workers in ex- port and other jobs—will have doubled to 14p in just over 10 months.

In a hilly district with a wet climate and a dense pattern of travelling to work, to school, to visit relatives, to seek shops and recreation, such rapid fare rises seriously threaten the way of life. For example, at the last census, one in three of the employed people living in the Colne Valley regularly used a bus to get to and from work.

Work in the Huddersfield and Colne Valley area is of immense importance to our export trade. Spokesmen at the former Board of Trade used to say that nowhere in the country was there a higher amount of export production per head than in this part of West Yorkshire. Furthermore, judging from the census returns, less than 10 per cent. of the population of Colne Valley in 1971 claimed professional or managerial status. It is, therefore, fair to infer that a relatively and unusually small proportion of that population have company cars at their disposal.

The main services involved are across the valley into neighbouring industrial valleys, and to such places as the David Brown tractor works, which has a pay roll of 3,000 people, practically all of whom are engaged on production, and also to such centres as Huddersfield. Leeds, Oldham and Manchester.

Marsden has 5,000 inhabitants. I take Marsden as a typical example for the purposes of this debate, with a journey from Marsden to Huddersfield as a typical destination. Marsden is eight miles outside Huddersfield and about 11 rather twisty miles from Oldham. There is a considerable public transport need across the Pennines for the purposes of work. For the eight-mile trip from the largest housing estate in Marsden to the bus station in central Huddersfield, the fare in December 1970 was 7p. Last January the fare for the same trip was 15p. Applications have now been made for that to rise to 20p by October. The increase which has taken place since December 1970 is 114 per cent. During the identical period of four and a half years, the official cost of living index rose by 78 per cent. Therefore, the Colne Valley bus fares have risen 50 per cent. more than general retail prices. No devices such as the excellent metro-card lump-sum fare purchase will bring any significant reductions for the average five-days-a-week passenger travelling between Marsden and Huddersfield.

Turning to the question of value for money, which has always been of concern to Colne Valley folk, the bus service provided in return for these rapidly rising fares is no better now than when the cost was much less. Local councillors and I have a file of complaints about buses not running, or not stopping where they are supposed to stop according to the timetable because of the stated need to make un time. The Director of Operations of the West Yorkshire Transport Executive wrote to me in February this year as follows:
"It is confirmed to me that certain of the advertised journeys have not been operated due to our present staff position, which we are very happy to say is now slowly improving, although we are still some way short of our target of sufficient staff to give, what we consider to be, an adequate degree of reliability."
The West Yorkshire Transport Executive has been frank in admitting that only a small proportion of the bus picking-up points in this wet, windy climate in an exposed area of the Pennines have adequate bus shelters, as I and my fellow political workers know to our cost.

At the 1971 census, out of every 10 households in Marsden only between three and four possessed a car. From my observations, although there may have been some small increase in that figures since, there has been no significant change. There are no housing estates in Marsden with rows of cars parked outside every night. The Colne Valley—particularly the villages and townships up the valley on the steeps of the Pennines—is a relatively low-paid area. There is some neighbourly willingness to offer lifts and to share journeys, but that is no substitute for choosing one's own time and method for a journey.

A few Marsdeners have turned to their old railway station on the main Huddersfield to Manchester line, where the single fare to Huddersfield is 11p. I make no complaint about that, because the rail trip is quick and it gives to the person who is travelling to work an opportunity to prepare himself for it. There is much to be said for it, but there are at most only four trains a day, and the station is difficult to use and inconveniently sited for most of the Marsden people. It there is to be a railway contribution—which I would welcome—to providing reasonably-priced public transport up the Colne Valley, halts should be opened at genuinely convenient parts of the line in the light of housing developments since Victorian times when the line was opened and the station was built. Marsden is the only surviving station in the Colne Valley, and there has been public demand for halts to be provided at Slaithwaite and Golcar.

Unless firm action on fare policy in public transport is taken soon, there will be many unromantic Robinson Crusoes stranded in Marsden. Although it is equidistant between Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield and closer to Oldham. Huddersfield, Macclesfield, Barnsley and Rochdale—it is not exactly out in the wilds—people will be stranded in a place which cannot provide the facilities which families need. I am not talking about an exceptional case. We acknowledge that Marsden and Huddersfield are exactly in line with a county scale which the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority has introduced.

Local councillors and I are worried by the apparent attitude of the Government towards West Yorkshire's public transport. The public expenditure White Paper covering the period 1978–79 indicates that over the country as a whole subsidy support for bus services from rates and taxes should be reduced by 50 per cent. over the next three years. However, there is a more immediate threat for conurbations. On 16th June this year the Under-Secretary of State stated that for 1976–77 the priority of the conurbation for Government subsidy will be reduced in favour of the areas that are not so densely populated. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to help us about that matter this afternoon.

In the Colne Valley we have been brought into a metropolitan county. The Kirklees District, of which we are an important part, is often described in the Press as a conurbation, yet Colne Valley areas such as Marsden are not densely populated. In fact, seven-eighths of the old urban district of Colne Valley is green belt or national park. Without any political overtones, we want to know in Colne Valley whether, for the purpose of this important subsidy change, we are to be treated as a less densely populated area or whether we are to be lumped into a West Yorkshire conurbation when we are not prepared to acknowledge any conurbation characteristics.

There is the important question of the Government's attitude to West Yorkshire's transport policies. The county has made its position clear in that it wants to improve the quality and reliability of existing services. It wishes to improve the quality of the rolling stock. I believe it wishes to purchase smaller buses of a kind that can be adapted to climb our steep hillsides. It wants to improve terminal facilities and waiting places. Above all, it does not want to see fares soaring out of reach of the ordinary person who wants to get to work. Its fares policy is clearly stated in the document which it was obliged to produce under Section 18 of the Transport Act 1968, in which it said that the declared policy of the council and the chief executive in the Council's submission to the Department of the Environment was to ensure that fares did not rise faster than the general increase in the cost of living.

The evidence is that during 1975—and I am hoping for some reassurances as regards 1976–77—fares have been rising substantially faster than even the enormous rises that have taken place in the general cost of living.

I turn to another aspect of transport policy. I acknowledge the Government's sincerity in trying to restraint the congestion and pollution brought about by modern road making to accommodate the private car, which often contains only one or two individuals. My constituents are confused by the way in which fares are rising so rapidly on ordinary routes on one of our major trunk roads. They are surprised that that should happen at a time when the Government claim that they are doing all that they can to discourage the use of the private car for relatively short journeys to work and to encourage people to use public transport instead.

As I have indicated, Marsden provides a telling example of a community which at the moment is not contributing anything like the usual national share of motor car congestion and pollution. That is because the level of car ownership in Marsden is rather low by present national standards. What is the recompense to Marsden for having this admirable reliance on public transport? Knowingly or not, the community is contributing to the national conservation policy. Its reward, in a hilly area which the good Lord did not create for the benefit of cyclists, is to find that public transport is not rising to meet the public need. A gap is left in the facilities which invite people to save up so that they can run a car and use their cars for journeys to work. I do not believe that that is what the Government want but that is the effect that the Government are creating in an area which could be very favourable for public transport journeys to work.

In my final remarks, I press on the Government to bear in mind not only the long-time residents of Colne Calley but those who have bought themselves houses in the area fairly recently on the ground that by a major trunk road they would be able to rely on a good service from public transport with reasonable fares. Their whole life plan is in danger of being frustrated. My constituency is a collection of trunk road corridors which do not contribute to the pleasantness of life in the valleys, but should guarantee a reasonable public transport service at a tolerable cost. I hope that this afternoon we shall hear from the Minister some indication that this can be a firm hope.

4.15 p.m.

I am sure that the House will wish me to congratulate the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) on the way in which he has raised these matters, which are of great importance to his constituents.

The hon. Gentleman asked for some reassurance. I can tell him that the Government are firmly committed to the continuing support of public transport. In regard to bus operators, the Government already contribute through the new bus grants and fuel duty rebates. Under the new bus grants the Government pay half the cost of buses bought for stage services. Since the decision by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer early last year the whole of the fuel duty for stage services is rebated. Therefore, no duty is paid in that regard and there is also the 50 per cent. grant for the purchase of new buses.

I should now like to say, in a few words, why bus fares have been rising so steeply. Everybody is now aware that the demand for bus services has fallen sharply over the years. The wider spread of car ownership has been associated with this decline in demand. Some people argue that poor bus services have led to the wider use of cars. The hon. Gentleman argued the point from a later stage in the cycle, but it is almost a "chicken and egg" situation. I repeat that undoubtedly the wider spread of car ownership has led to a decline in bus services, but I cannot believe the situation is as simple as that. There is no doubt that the great advantage in the use of a car is its door-to-door convenience. No matter how many experiments are carried out in the employment of buses—and a number are in process at the moment—the bus cannot possibly match the car as a personal individualised mode of transport. It may well be that the car started the tendency for bus journeys to decline. This decline led to a deterioration in services, because the reduction in passengers did not bring with it a corresponding reduction in operating costs, and the downward spiral continues.

Bus operators have therefore been fighting an uphill battle to keep their services going within the resources available to them. At the same time, operating costs have been rising at a faster rate than prices generally. The bus industry is labour-intensive; on local services, labour accounts for 70 per cent. of operating costs. Unless they can covet their increased costs, operators simply cannot provide services.

The money to pay for bus services has to be found from somewhere. It has to be found by the farepayer, or by the taxpayer, or out of the rates. There is no other source of which I have knowledge. I have already mentioned the extent to which the Government are helping to finance the bus industry direct. We have also acted this year to contribute towards local authority support to bus services. There was a big increase in the amount of local authority expenditure planned on revenue support for public transport between 1973–74 and 1974–75, as bus operators were hit by steeply rising costs and local authorities, particularly the major conurbations, were unwilling to see the costs passed on in fares. This may account for the figure of 114 per cent. mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. He would agree that the figure would depend on the base line. It sometimes takes a number of rears to see what the trend is, and fares may have been held back artificially for a period of time.

I gave the hon. Gentleman the advantage, when I compiled the figure of 114 per cent., of taking the fare last January. If I had wished to over-egg the pudding I could have taken fares as they will be next month.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has worked on it with great accuracy, but he will excuse me if I say that I should like to see a cross-section of the fares over a few years, although I certainly do not gainsay the fact that the cost of operating buses has increased by more than the general standard because of the 70 per cent. of wage costs in operating such services.

Local authorities estimated that their revenue support expenditure in 1974–75 would come to £85 million, at November 1973 prices. If they were to continue to restrict fare increases in 1975–76 to the same extent, revenue support in the current year could be double that amount. What the Government have done, to reduce the impact on the rates of local authorities' revenue support policies during 1975–76 and to moderate the level of fare increases which would otherwise be necessary, is to make a special grant allocation of £90 million through Transport Supplementary Grant towards local authorities' support of buses in England and Wales. There has never been previously any similar grant towards revenue support for public transport. This is on top of the £60 million a year which is made available to the bus industry through new bus grant and rebate of fuel duty which I have already mentioned.

But I want to make it quite clear that such a massive level of support cannot and must not continue. The economy cannot continue to support subsidies to bus operations on this scale, and it is this Government's policy that such subsidies must be reduced. Of course, this means that fares will have to rise. Inflation, which poses such a threat to this country, attacks the bus industry as much as any other. If costs and wages rise to the extent that they have been doing, someone has to pay, and the Government believe that the burden on the ratepayer is already heavy enough.

So the Government believe that the level of revenue support to buses has to be reduced. They also believe that a greater proportion of the resources which are available for bus revenue support should be directed towards keeping going the public transport services in the non-metropolitan areas which are at present threatened with extinction. Only £6½ million of the £90 million grant went to the non-metropolitan counties in the allocation for 1975–76. We cannot change that allocation now. But in the allocation for next year, as is made clear in my Department's Circular 43/75, we shall give a higher proportion of the resources available for bus support to the non-metropolitan counties.

For 1975–76 almost £4·6 million of revenue support expenditure was accepted for Transport Supplementary Grant for West Yorkshire. I am afraid that we have to be quite clear that, along with the other metropolitan counties, West Yorkshire cannot expect to receive such favourable treatment in the allocation for 1976–77. Nevertheless I hope that the hon. Member will accept that the Government have this year done more than any previous Government to support bus costs.

The hon. Member has referred to the difficulties experienced in his own constituency, and the House will want me to express its understanding of and sympathy with the situation which he has described. But it would be wrong for central Government to try to interfere in the local transport and planning questions which are essentially the responsibility of the metropolitan county council, both in its role of passenger transport authority for the area and as the authority responsible for preparing the county's transport policy and programme. The West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive was, of course, set up under the Local Government Act 1972 and came into existence in April of last year. The West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council and the Passenger Transport Executive deserve a good deal of credit for producing so soon after their simultaneous birth the very interesting and well-produced statement on "Public Transport for West Yorkshire" to which the hon. Member has referred. It is certainly an impressive document, which shows a real awareness of and concern for the problems of the West Yorkshire travelling public. I am sure that it is right that local transport problems should be faced and tackled in this way by the local responsible authorities, whose knowledge and experience of the situation is so much greater than anything to which central Government could ever aspire.

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about the West Yorkshire statement. However, although the county is classified as a metropolitan county, a large proportion of it is rural and cannot be compared with a truly metropolitan county in another part of England.

Other areas have much the same problem, of course, although I agree that the hon. Gentleman's own valley is an exception, or is near to being an exception, compared with many of the other areas. This is one of the difficulties of metropolitan counties. It would have been silly to have left Colne Valley out of it, although I shelter behind the fact that I had little to do with the 1972 Act.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the reports of 1972 and 1974 by the Expenditure Committee on Urban Transport planning and on Public Expenditure on Transport, and he mentioned the recommendations of the earlier report on the encouragement of public transport and asked how current Government directives could be squared with the generally favourable response to these reports.

I have explained some of the ways in which the Government are putting money into the public transport system. We as a Government are also encouraging county councils to put forward in their transport policy and programme traffic management measures which will succeed in helping bus operators in urban areas by improving their reliability.

One feature to have come out of all the studies of buses is that people are less concerned with the charges made for buses than they are about the unreliability of buses. Given the choice, the fact that the bus is there is more important than how much it will cost. There is no point in a would-be passenger having his money ready if no bus arrives.

The transport policy and programmes will also need to give very careful consideration to measures of restraint on private cars. I am confident that this is the way in which we can really make the bus a more attractive method of transport. It is, I believe, much more important than artificial restrictions on fares, which of course in a time of rising costs amount to reductions in fares in real terms. It is more important that we should look at methods of improving the efficiency of buses rather than merely trying artificially to keep down fares.

The Government have also worked to further the cause of public transport by their support for research and demonstration projects. The bus demonstration projects which my Department sponsored were important for the way in which they attracted attention to the various types of measures which could be taken to help buses—and these were measures to be taken not only by bus operators but by local authorities, their highway planners and their traffic engineers.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the possibility of using smaller buses. The West Cumberland area had such a service for the valleys and other difficult areas. Rather appropriately, they were known as the "Mountain Goat Buses". I am not sure about the up-to-date position, but for a period they showed promise of being of some help in that rather peculiar geographical area.

This series of projects demonstrated the practicability of with-flow bus lanes, contra-flow bus lanes, bus-only roads and means of giving priority to buses at traffic lights. It also explored the use of minibuses, as in a city centre bus service running through a pedestrianised area, and illustrated the use of a bus feeder service to a commuter rail service.

There may be some ideas here for an area like the Colne Valley, with its existing, albeit Victorian-planned railway system.

We have gone on to encourage experiments with other different types of operation. The Stevenage superbus has attracted a good deal of attention for its achievement in attracting increasing numbers of passengers. Dial-a-ride systems have been an interesting feature of the North American transport scene for some time, and the Department's Transport and Road Research Laboratory has been concerned to investigate the rôle of a dial-a-bus in the United Kingdom situation. Such systems are already operating in a number of locations in this country. One of the most interesting dial-a-bus operations is in Harlow, where it has had no difficulty in establishing its popularity

A feature of so many of these experiments has been the excellent co-operation which has existed between the local authorities and bus operators concerned and central Government. I think that one of the most important jobs for local—

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.