Skip to main content

Public Transport (Rural Areas)

Volume 486: debated on Tuesday 20 January 2009

1. Whether her policy on community engagement and empowerment takes account of public transport provision in rural areas. (248939)

Before I answer the question, may I congratulate and welcome the new members of the Opposition Front-Bench team and wish well those who have gone to pastures new and less green?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes. The White Paper, “Communities in control”, shifts power and influence to citizens and communities across the whole range of public services. In engaging local communities, public bodies need to take account of transport provision and ensure that everyone has fair access.

That is very good news. The problem is that local authorities provide or subsidise transport in the case of school transport, youth services, social services, bus subsidies, car share schemes and over-60s free bus travel; the NHS provides ambulances, hospital car services and hospital patient transport; and Royal Mail provides for 50,000 people a year travelling in their post buses—we have so much ad hocery that it is time for a Government strategy. At the moment, the poorest in our communities always suffer, particularly in large rural areas. I would like this issue to be pushed down to local authority level at the same time as having a coherent strategy and working out the cost of not having a coherent and sustainable transport policy.

The hon. Gentleman has raised a lot of important and serious points. One of the reasons why we are passionate about community engagement and participation is that it improves a service. We need to see in rural communities the same levels of engagement that there are in urban communities. That will lead to improved transport systems. It is for local authorities to decide what bus services to support in their area according to local needs and priorities. In that regard, the hon. Gentleman will welcome the increased investment that there has been this year, as in the past 11 years, for local authorities.

The Department’s report some time ago found that phoney consultation was a significant source of distrust among the electorate at large. When people travel a great distance to make their views known to a particular public body, it is very frustrating if they feel that such bodies are only going through the motions. How can the Government prevent charges that they sometimes have phoney consultations and do not listen to the overwhelming results that flood back?

Obviously, we are all against phoney consultation. We must be clear that consultation does not always mean that stakeholders who respond will have their views heard. However, my hon. Friend raises an important point. We must not see a façade where an impression is created that citizens are being consulted, because that only leads them up the garden path and they become more frustrated when services do not improve and meet their desires and needs. We are obviously against that sort of consultation, and if he has any examples to give us we will ensure that we take on board seriously the concerns that he has raised.