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Rural Bus Services

Volume 929: debated on Wednesday 6 April 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he hopes to announce definite proposals designed to improve bus services in rural areas.

This subject will be included in the forthcoming White Paper on transport policy, but meanwhile the Government have accepted 98 per cent. of the total bid made by the shire counties for bus revenue support this year and are encouraging new initiatives where they can.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that action on rural transport is even more overdue in the light of last week's petrol price increases? Does he further agree that basic mobility is essential to the livelihood of country areas and that it is time that the Government acted quickly, since in the last three years they have steadfastly refused to take account of the transport problems facing country areas?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong. We have a Bill going through the House to encourage experiments in rural areas. What worries me more than anything, in the light of the current situation, is that some Conservative-controlled county councils are threatening not to pay bus companies the money that they have received from the Government. This is extremely dangerous, because they are damaging the finances of bus companies and playing with something that the hon. Gentleman regards as important, namely, the community's bus services. Last year, North Cornwall failed to pay £250,000 that it had received in bus revenue support.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for the maximum amount of public funds to be used to maintain bus services in rural areas but that we also need a far more radical approach to the provision of public transport in rural areas, apart from the conventional buses? Will the Government therefore put the maximum urgency behind the experiments to ensure that public transport is more widely available in rural areas?

I am very interested in what my hon. Friend says and I am sure that he is right. We must take into account the importance of transport to rural areas and we firmly intend to do that in the transport White Paper. We shall make every effort to be as positive as we can.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that one of the items that are exacerbating relationships between some NBC companies, such as the Hants and Dorset Company, and district and county councils is the argument over concessionary fares? I welcome what the Minister has done with the NBC, but does he accept that it is our impression that the Government are distinctly unenthusiastic about rearranging concessionary fares for old folk? Will he therefore consider setting up an inquiry within his own Department so that it is not conducted by the NBC, which is a party to maintaining the status quo?

We are looking at the whole matter in the context of the White Paper discussions and we are giving it a high priority. It is a subject of great concern. The discrepancies that exist between some Labour and some Conservative authorities, which may be neighbours, are very serious and the hon. Gentleman should take account of that.