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Rural Transport

Volume 927: debated on Monday 7 March 1977

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1.32 a.m.

After that rather exciting debate, the points that I wish to raise, though possibly just as important, will not give rise to as much discord between myself and the Under-Secretary. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for having had to keep him up until this late hour.

When I was elected Member of Parliament for the Richmond constituency in 1949 we had a very comprehensive public transport system in the area. Richmond is the largest constituency in acreage in England. It is 85 miles long and 45 miles across, with one voter to every 11 acres. There is no concentration of population. Northallerton and Richmond, with populations of about 7,000 to 8,000, are the two largest towns. There are some 370 villages.

Therefore, people living in the area have to travel long distances for their everyday requirements—to get to work, to visit the doctor, to visit hospital, to do their shopping, or even to draw their pensions. The Richmond constituency is similar to many others in North Yorkshire—Thirsk and Malton, Ripon, Skipton and Scarborough.

What I am now faced with, in common with other Members of Parliament for the North Yorkshire area, is a very severe cut-back in bus services with all the hardship and difficulties that this will create. In the Richmond constituency in 1959 we had not only the main London to Edinburgh railway line but also four branch lines and over 30 passenger stations. These branch lines have been closed one by one following the Beeching plan and now all that remains is one main line station at Northallerton.

I attended a number of inquiries into these closures. All of them were opposed, and in all of them we were given the assurance that a good bus service as an alternative would be provided to meet the requirements of the general public. Those services were in fact provided and have been running for a number of years.

A recent publication dealing with every service provided by the North Yorkshire County Council, including a paper on transport headed "Time for a Change?" sets out our problems, and I shall quote from it:
"The ability to travel from one place to another is an important part of life. Whether the movement is for business or domestic purposes, and whether it is of goods or of persons, efficient transport is of great importance, especially in times of financial restraint.
"Unfortunately, certain sections of the community experience travel difficulties both by public and by private transport. Attempts to deal with these difficulties can result in the creation of other problems.
"The provision of transport services is especially difficult in North Yorkshire because it is a large rural county with a low density of population and because it contains many towns and villages of architectural value, and two National Parks. This means the cost per resident of highway and public transport provision is much higher in North Yorkshire than in many other parts of the country and that the provision of new facilities must be balanced against important environmental and amenity considerations.
"The main change over the coming years is likely to be the continuing increase in car ownership and, consequently, in general road traffic. However, a large section of the population is likely to remain without the use of a car for the foreseeable future and the problems of this group are just as important as those of the motorist."
That introduction to the discussion paper highlights the problem facing us today.

In a rural area, many of us look upon rural transport as a social service. The rural community does not enjoy many of the public services which are provided in the urban areas, because of the lack of concentration of population. For example, it is often a long way to the nearest swimming pool, library, museum, hospital or, indeed, any form of entertainment, be it a cinema, a theatre or an evening class. Therefore, while one recognises that there will be a steady increase in the use of the private motor car, there will always be those who are less fortunate and who have to rely on public transport. For them transport is an essential service, to be subsidised by the local authorities.

With the Government's cut-backs in their rate support grant to the county council, the problem of a subsidy to help the bus services running in the rural areas has become more acute in recent months. A comprehensive review of the bus services run by the United Automobile Services Limited for Richmond-shire was undertaken in 1976, and some rationalisation of services provided for the district was planned. This was approved by the Traffic Commissioners at their hearing on 2nd December 1976.

The rationalisation was the result of approaches made by United Automobile Services Limited to the North Yorkshire County Council for the saving of money on certain uneconomic routes, and when the new services were brought into being in early 1977 this was achieved. As well as a number of services being cut out, some improvements also took place where they were needed.

Following the Local Government Act 1972, the North Yorkshire County Council is the transportation authority, and under that Act the county council received a grant from the Department of the Environment—now from the Department of Transport—to assist it in helping to meet the request of bus companies for support of uneconomic services.

Before April 1974, the then district councils as well as the county councils, by reason of Section 34 of the Transport Act 1968, were able to make grants towards the assistance of uneconomic bus services for the benefit of persons residing in rural areas. There was much to be said for the district councils being so enabled, and also for the district councils to receive grants from the Department of Transport so that they could make subventions for the support of rural transport services. The district councils knew the local requirements, and, with additional assistance from the county council, were able to keep uneconomic services running.

The previous Richmondshire District Council was one of the first local authorities to use Section 34 at a time when bus services were being withdrawn from Swaledale and Teesdale, and, as a result of the action of the district council, the county council and the Department of the Environment, financial support kept buses running in Swaledale and Teesdale, and has been doing so since then.

The United Automobile Services Limited wrote to the Chief Executive Officer of the North Yorkshire County Council on 10th February stating that, unless the county council could increase its revenue support for 1977–78, it would have to withdraw some 30 services, reduce the frequency of six others, and to close the depots at Ripon, Pickering, Northallerton and Hawes, with the result that some 100 staff would be made redundant.

The North Yorkshire County Council had offered support in the sum of £347,000, which included support for urban services in Scarborough, and according to United Services, excluding the Scarborough support, the support offered would be a maximum of £282,000. The bus service estimates its overall shortage at £537,000, which shows a shortfall of some £255,000.

Rural transport experiments are being initiated in various parts of North Yorkshire, and include parts of Richmondshire and the west side of Hambleton District Council. It would seem ridiculous for further bus services to be withdrawn while these experiments are being considered, and I am sure that we are all aware that, if services are withdrawn, any recommendations put forward by the study group which would call for new bus services will be extremely difficult to implement.

The Richmond Bus Study was only recently completed, fare increases were granted in February, and now once again bus services are in jeopardy. In Swaledale and Wensleydale, if bus services are withdrawn, there will be further losses of rural population. The Dales areas have suffered depopulation for many years, and the possibility of this being accelerated by the total lack of public transport is of great concern to all of us.

For years now, there have been talks and discussions about modification of bus services. I realise that 32-seater buses are rarely full in many rural areas, and many of us would like to have seen the introduction of minibuses, or even, as in Scandinavia, some use of Post Office services to help in public transport, though I recognise that there are security difficulties and arguments against that. Nevertheless, unless some Government take quick action to remedy the continual reduction of public transport the rural areas, services will slowly disappear and it will be a case of those in the rural areas once again suffering.

Depopulation of the rural areas creates other problems for different Government Departments, and it is in the interest of all of us to try to stem it. The severe cut in the rate support grant to local authorities has aggravated the situation.

I hope that the Minister, bearing in mind the studies he intends to undertake in this area and in Devon will have discussions with the local authorities to see what, if anything, can be done at least to postpone any further cuts until the study group has had time to report.

Finally, I want to quote a letter sent to me on 3rd March, only four days ago, by the Hambleton District Council. It says:
"My Council have asked that you be advised of their concern for the future of rural bus services exemplified by the representations now made by subsidiaries of the National Bus Company.
"I have been asked to solicit your support for improvements in the situation, possibly through increases in transport supplementary grant.
"My Council acknowledge that the problem of rural transport has been with us from time immemorial and that the answers cannot be obtained overnight. However, it is felt that only continued representations in this respect are likely to impress upon central government the real problems which are faced by members of the rural community, particularly in times of ever increasing transport costs."
All of us from rural areas have seen many such letters, and this one again points the figure at the problem facing us. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will be able to give us some encouragement, bearing in mind that his study group is about to go to work and that we must try to keep some services until it is in a position to report.

1.45 a.m.

The hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T Kitson) has raised the very important issue of rural transport. I am only sorry that we could not have had the debate at a more suitable time of day. The hon. Gentleman put the problem very eloquently and I would assure him at the beginning of my remarks that I take the whole problem very seriously indeed.

As the hon. Gentleman will know from his own interventions during transport Question Time, we are taking a very long and profound look at this whole question in our consultations and discussions that will lead up to the transport White Paper later in the year.

I would like to state what we are doing now to help immediately with the problem of rural transport. First, we are giving direct financial support to the bus industry by way of new bus grant and fuel duty rebate. These two amount to about £70 million in 1976–77. Secondly, it has been our policy, and we have stated it on many occasions, most recently in the Department of Transport Circular 1/77, to accept proposals made in the context of counties' transport policies and programmes that aim to steer available bus revenue support to the maintenance of minimum levels of service especially in rural areas.

Expenditure proposed by shire counties for this purpose has been accepted in full for transport supplementary grant for 1976–77. What I am saying is that all the demands that have been made by the shire counties, including North Yorkshire, have been met in full, and that we can give no higher priority than to meet what is asked for in full.

This amounted to £41 million in England and Wales in 1976–77 and £36 million in 1977–78 at November 1975 prices. It would be particularly unfortunate if the funds allocated were not now to be spent on supporting the essential lifeline which rural dwellers rely on to get to school, to work, to the shops and to other essential facilities like hospitals, doctors and welfare services.

But that unfortunately appears to be the likely prospect in North Yorkshire. Having suggested in its TPP that it would spend that amount of money—£765,000 at November 1975 prices—I now understand that it is proposing to reduce planned revenue support to £550,000 in the next financial year. Again I am referring to the "funny money" estimate at November 1975 prices.

That is a considerable reduction and it is that, and that alone, that has caused the severe problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The two NBC operators—West Yorkshire Road Car and United Automobile—with routes in North Yorkshire, have said that if this reduction takes place they will have to make massive cuts in their services. West Yorkshire Road Car, operating mainly in the south of the county, has issued a Press release saying that 35 towns and villages in its operating area would be left without any bus service, and a further 50 would suffer significant reductions. United Automobile has written to the county saying that 30 rural services in its operating area would be withdrawn, six others reduced in frequency and 100 staff made redundant.

Let us be clear what this may mean. It may cut the link between the old-age pensioner and her nearby town where she draws her pension. It may mean that buses taking schoolchildren to school are withdrawn. I understand it will certainly mean that bus depots are closed and more men thrown out of work. I hope that North Yorkshire does not wish to cause results like these. But I fear that it will be the consequence of the reductions which I believe that it is seeking to make. The figure which it has produced for the next financial year—£765,000—is out of a total North Yorkshire budget of some £130 million, and that is not much when what is at stake is the wellbeing of whole communities and especially the poor, the old and the young within them. I am not inciting North Yorkshire to profligacy or to overspending. I am, however, asking whether, within that overall budget, it has taken account of the dire consequences of failing to provide what it said it would, especially when we in central Government have paid it grant to help it carry out its policies and it is now going back on them.

I have put the spotlight on North Yorkshire not simply because its policy meeting on Friday of this week will make or break rural transport in the area, but because counties have the statutory responsibility for developing policies that will promote the provision of a co-ordinated and efficient system of public passenger transport to meet the needs of their counties and, in the furtherance of this duty, the powers to pay grant accordingly. Local authorities are in the hot seat, because they are best able to assess local needs. We cannot and must not absolve them of that responsibility.

However, I agree with the hon Gentleman that central Government have a responsibility to get the balance right between, for example, the needs of urban and rural areas and between expenditure on private and public transport. Over the past few years, the trend in transport expenditure has been away from roads and towards public transport. In 1970–71 52 per cent. went on roads, and 24 per cent. on public transport; but 1975–76 35 per cent. was going on roads and 45 per cent. on public transport. Our priority here is therefore apparent, and we take account of the needs of rural areas just as much as we do the needs of of inner cities and major urban areas. But we can do this only by working through the local authorities and the programmes they adopt.

The consultation document on transport policy, for example, stated that it may well be necessary to increase the sums provided for bus subsidy to accommodate an adequate level of selective support in areas such as North Yorkshire, but that could be done only by making reductions in other areas of transport expenditure. What is perhaps disturbing is the question whether, even if we find the resources, we can be certain that they will be spent in the way intended. I hope that North Yorkshire, especially, takes that on board when it comes to discuss these matters again with the bus companies next Friday.

I believe that the needs of people who live in the country and do not have access to a car demand that a sound basic network of conventional buses should be maintained, subsidised as necessary. But there are some situations where the demand for public transport is so small and dispersed that conventional buses no longer represent the best value for money. There is a need to look at new forms of transport operation which might be more suitable for low density rural areas, and might provide more flexible services at lower costs. A number of studies are being conducted, one of them in a small part of the hon. Member's constituency. I am sorry that it is a small part, but resources are restricted. The studies are going ahead in four rural areas of Great Britain and we are looking at other less conventional methods of transport for rural areas.

Very shortly a local working party, drawn from local authorities, the bus industry and voluntary bodies will meet to finalise recommendations for experimental schemes in North Yorkshire. Later this month I shall take the chair at a meeting of the national level steering committee set up to co-ordinate the programme, and representing local authority, bus industry and voluntary interests at national level. Subject to their endorsement, experimental schemes will start up during the summer and these will give us practical evidence of the scope for complementing the conventional rural bus with less conventional services.

These schemes should give us a clear idea of the way forward, but, like the hon. Member I do not think that it is sufficient to rely on this sort of experiment. We must for the main part do our best with the existing stage services, and I hope, therefore, that North Yorkshire will take the consequences of its intended moves very much to heart. The situation in such areas has been spelt out by the hon. Member and myself this evening. It could be most severe, and I hope that whatever it does, the area will take very much to heart its responsibilities for providing a clear and stable level of public transport.

I hope that I have said enough to indicate our concern about the matter and our hope that something better than the prospect that we now face will emerge from the consultation which I hope will carry on between the county and the bus companies.