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Rural Bus Services (North Yorkshire)

Volume 575: debated on Monday 10 February 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gavin Barwell.)

I am delighted to have secured the debate. “The wheels on the bus go round and round” is a well known expression and I hope our bus service continues.

I should say something about the history and context of the debate. Free bus passes were started in the late 1990s under the previous Government. Initially, they were provided locally for concessionary fares, but then went national. As many hon. Members will remember, the problem was that they were not adequately funded. When they were initially rolled out locally, North Yorkshire county council and other shire counties could support them, but when the free passes for concessionary travel were rolled out nationally, there was a problem for Scarborough borough, including the ward of Filey, which is in my current constituency, and the Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency. Notably, they are leisure destinations in their own right and attracted far more visitors than we had ever bargained for.

In my view, North Yorkshire county council is acting entirely properly and responsibly in that regard, but it faces a double challenge. The first challenge is that the bus subsidy is being reduced, and the second is that it faces the national Government austerity programme. Government Members support that, but the grant to local councils is being reduced by it.

I should like to come up with a solution to the problem and put a question to my hon. Friend the Minister, my distinguished constituency neighbour. Obviously, those to whom I have spoken in the Ryedale forum for older people, in the Filey and Hertford parts of Scarborough borough council that I represent, and those living in Thirsk and Easingwold and the parts of Hambleton district council that I represent, believe that there is no point having the free bus pass if there is no bus for them to take. I believe that the way forward is to put concessionary travel by bus on the same legal footing as travel by rail. That would allow concessionary travel to continue, but enable those who wish to avail themselves of the concessionary fares to pay a contribution.

My understanding is that concessionary rail travellers can and do pay a contribution towards the fare, whereas bus travellers on concessionary fares will not be permitted to make a contribution, and we risk losing the service. The proposed reduction of bus services is causing great anxiety, particularly among the elderly and less mobile passengers. Buses provide a lifeline to constituents in rural communities, with many relying on those essential services to access their work—people living in rural communities often work in the towns. The elderly and more vulnerable rely on the bus services to access vital services such as doctors, hospitals and shops.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her fine speech. By making repeated cuts to services—there have been repeated cuts to the 401 service from Selby to Goole in recent years—we make the routes unsustainable in the longer term. The Selby to Goole route is important for local students, but the more services are cut, the less attractive they are to use.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I hope that the Minister and North Yorkshire county council have heard it.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point, and older people at many of my surgeries have offered to pay for bus travel. I demur slightly in that I believe that North Yorkshire county council could have consulted much more with the communities of which she talks. I urge her to urge the council to talk more to the people.

My hon. Friend has a point. I have been copied in to correspondence with East Ayton parish council, representing the Saxton area, which felt that consultation was insufficient and that that led to the decision that was taken being flawed. The parish council says:

“These bus services are vital to both Parishes”—

of East Ayton and West Ayton—

“and are crucial to ensure that there is no isolation for those who are elderly and infirm.”

My hon. Friend has made a powerful point about how important bus services are for the elderly and more vulnerable in our community in rural areas. North Yorkshire has a great rural presence, but it is not entirely rural. Buses are important in towns too, and I wonder whether we can broaden the debate to include all of our county.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I used to represent a small part of his constituency, and I know how dependent the people there were on accessing Harrogate town.

In Filey, Mike Cockerill, an independent councillor, is on the record as saying that he is especially concerned by the proposal to withdraw the existing Filey town service on both the Sycamore and Wharfedale routes. The county proposes to have a dial-a-ride service, but the problem with that is that it is not practical for collecting passengers and dropping them off around towns such as Filey, Harrogate and others. Dial-a-ride services are far more expensive and are generally meant for trips from A to B, rather than town tour-type journeys. The operator of that service, Olympic Coaches, is well liked and respected and goes the extra mile. If a regular passenger does not turn up, the operator will dismount from the bus and call on the resident—often elderly—to check that they have not been taken ill. They also take time to assist people with their shopping bags when they board and disembark, even taking the shopping to the passengers’ front doors if they are not able to carry it.

The routes are used by 3,500 local residents every month, so they have a substantial uptake. Without the rural bus services serving towns such as Thirsk, Easingwold, Malton, Pickering, Filey and many other smaller towns and villages, those residents will be disconnected from their rural hinterlands.

I welcome the fact that North Yorkshire county council’s scrutiny committee took the opportunity to review its decision to reduce the services after several councillors called it in. As a result, I understand that a task force will be set up to look at the cuts that have been agreed— £1.7 million from a total budget of £4.4 million.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important Adjournment debate. The bus services are really important in a county such as North Yorkshire, and we all have communities that will be affected by the proposed cuts. She makes a sensible suggestion about those pensioners who can afford to pay for their travel.

My concern, which is shared by some of my constituents, is about North Yorkshire county council’s priorities. My hon. Friend has just mentioned the size of the cuts, but the council spends—I believe—almost £250,000 on salaries for union representatives. It seems to think that it is okay to spend that on salaries for union reps, but it would go a long way to saving some of these rural bus services.

The problem is that in every other respect, the county council has behaved very responsibly. It has pared back library services. Many of us visited local libraries on Saturday and through the week to celebrate the services provided. My hon. Friend might like to secure his own Adjournment debate to pursue the valid points he makes, and which need to be looked at in greater detail.

I personally welcome the leadership given by County Councillor David Jeffels. The county council has set up a task group that will meet for the first time a week today, on Monday 17 February. It will look at ideas, including—I hope that in summing up the debate the Minister will give us some creature comfort here—looking at the Department for Transport’s £78.5 million for local sustainable transport, the possibility of using the new homes bonus money through the district and borough councils, the dial-a-ride that I mentioned, community transport and car sharing. It is incumbent on all county councils facing cuts to try to provide solutions and share best practice.

I would like to draw the strands together by saying that those of us who live in and represent rural communities need to ensure that we do not have a significantly worse service than those living in urban conurbations across the Yorkshire region; that young people who do not have their own transport are able to access buses to get to work; and that the elderly and less mobile can continue to access the rural bus network to go to the doctor, the dentist and the hospital. I have been given a very clear message, particularly by the Ryedale forum for older people and those I have met in Filey, Thirsk, Easingwold and across the piece, that they do not want to lose the service. They want to be in a position to continue to enjoy a concessionary fare, but pay something towards keeping the bus service running.

I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will take the opportunity to ask why bus passengers are treated on a different legal basis from railway passengers. Is there some way forward that would help North Yorkshire county council to make the savings we know we have to make, but allow the bus service passengers living in rural areas—and semi-rural areas like Harrogate—to continue to enjoy the current level of service?

I pay tribute to the commercial bus operators who, in Selby, Ripon, the villages in outer York, Goole and the outskirts of Harrogate, operate an outstanding service. The services are currently operated by commercial bus operators, with a bus subsidy administered by North Yorkshire county council. I believe that what I am proposing this evening is a solution that is perfectly legal and will allow the service to continue to be enjoyed by all bus users currently living in rural North Yorkshire.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on securing this debate. Buses play a vital role in our economy. More than 2.2 billion bus journeys were made on local buses in England, outside London, in 2012-13. Buses are essential for many people to get to work, to education, to doctors and to hospitals, as my hon. Friend remarked. For many, particularly those in rural areas, the bus is a lifeline and without it they would not be able to access those essential services or go shopping and socialise.

Over half of those who rely on buses outside London do not have access to a car. Customer satisfaction with bus journeys is high—84% are satisfied with their service—and under-21s make up a third of bus passengers, while use among the over-60s is increasing as a result of the national concessionary pass. Furthermore, a recent study by the university of Leeds has reinforced the importance of buses to a healthy, growing economy.

The Government remain committed to improving bus services, and expenditure on buses reflects that: this year, we will spend more than £1 billion on the concessionary travel entitlement and more than £340 million in direct subsidies to bus operators in England; more than £300 million has been allocated to funding major bus projects in the past year; and outside London 42% of the money that goes to bus operators comes from the taxpayer by one mechanism or another. We have provided £70 million through the better bus areas fund to deliver improvements in 24 local authority areas and £20 million to support community transport.

In addition, many bus improvement schemes have been funded as part of the Government’s £600 million local sustainable transport fund, while a total of £95 million has been provided for four rounds of the green bus fund to improve environmental performance. All this demonstrates our commitment. Moreover, as a local North Yorkshire MP, I am pleased that North Yorkshire county council has received more than £5 million in local sustainable transport funding in 2012-15, including for bus improvements in Harrogate and Knaresborough and to boost tourism in Whitby and the Esk valley.

My hon. Friend made the point that initially, when the concessionary scheme was introduced, boroughs such as mine in Scarborough and other popular tourist hotspots felt they were being unfairly treated because they were paying for journeys that started in their area. People going from Leeds or Hull to places such as Scarborough, Malton or Kirbymoorside found that although the council in Hull paid for the journey to the resort, the council in the resort paid for the return journey. The situation has been a lot better since we moved to county-level funding, however, as it means that journeys within North Yorkshire are paid for by North Yorkshire county council.

The central question posed by my hon. Friend was, should pensioners be charged to use their concessionary passes? I believe that this would undermine the basic principle of the concessionary scheme, and many would probably see it as a step too far. Were any Labour Members present for this important Adjournment debate, I believe they would also underline how the principle of the concessionary scheme should be written in stone, not undermined.

As with other benefits, such as the free television licence and the winter fuel allowance, it would be prohibitively expensive to means-test people. Also, if people had to apply for the pass, as with other means-tested pensioner benefits, we might find a much lower uptake.

My central argument is that if it works for rail passengers—they buy a concessionary rail card and get the concessionary travel—why can it not work for bus passengers? I have been led to believe that it cannot work because the law prevents it, so I am asking the Government to change the law. It need not be means-tested—it is not means-tested for rail passengers. We just need to put rail and bus passengers on an equal footing—problem solved.

I recently attended a meeting of my own older people’s forum in Scarborough, and the very same suggestion was made. People said, “We’ve got these bus passes, but what’s the point, if there’s no bus to use. We’d be prepared to pay a nominal charge to use some of these services, if we could retain them.” However, that would require a fundamental change to the way the system works, and it could be the thin end of the wedge, as services up and down the country—not just the ones that needed help to survive, but some of the more commercial ones—might also demand payment. It would change fundamentally the whole basis of the concessionary scheme. We do not at present have a scheme of free travel for pensioners on the railways. The discount available to pensioners or the railcards they can use are something completely different.

Some of the other services, such as the 118 from Filey to Scarborough via Flixton, have three or fewer passengers, so even if we charged passengers an additional £1 to use their passes on those journeys, that would mean only £3 on some of them. Indeed, some of the services in North Yorkshire have no passengers at all. We need to be more intelligent in the way we approach this. For example, the intention is for the F1 and F2 in Filey to be dial-a-ride services to replace the buses. Indeed, there is a successful dial-a-ride service in my constituency which, let us not forget, picks the pensioners up from their homes and takes them to where they need to go. Many people with mobility problems therefore find dial-a-ride to be a superior service to the bus, which requires them to get to a bus stop and wait, often in inclement weather.

Similarly, the 195 from Hovingham to Helmsley via Ampleforth will be reduced to three days a week, running only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, but again, that service currently carries only three or fewer passengers on some of its journeys. Interestingly, I had a telephone call last year from one of my constituents in Sleights—a lady who was a pensioner—who was concerned that the bus service there would be changed and would no longer be adequate. I asked how often she used it and she said, “Well, I don’t use the service myself—I’ve got a car—but the day may come when I do need a service and I’d like it to be there.” There is therefore, to a degree, an aspiration or wish to have a service in case of emergencies or if that person can no longer drive. However, may I suggest that it is not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise a service in case people might want to use it one day?

Does the Minister agree that this is a difficult matter for schools such as Upper Wharfedale and Nidderdale High, which rely on children being sent by parents who are out of the catchment area? Public subsidy is needed for those parents and children, yet the council is ripping those services and that subsidy away, causing big trouble for those highly rural schools.

I am aware that that is a problem. Indeed, the problem becomes more acute where there are no spare places on the school bus service, so that those who do not qualify for access to the free bus service—whether they be sixth-formers or people coming from out-of-catchment—find they cannot get on the school bus even if they want to pay. Therefore, cuts to services, particularly those early in the morning or in the evening, can be a problem.

As my hon. Friend knows, Welburn school falls into that category—the bus passes it, but people are not allowed to access it. Has the Department made a comparative assessment of the cost of dial-a-ride, which I understand is much more expensive than the current Filey service? As we have established that there has been a lack of consultation, would it not make sense to sit down with the residents and see which we need to keep and which we can dispense with?

As I understand it, North Yorkshire council has been conducting an extensive consultation and also has the ridership figures. I have looked at some of the figures for some of the services, and one of the big problems is that services are being provided that are not being used by large numbers of people. I understand that North Yorkshire is keen to maintain some sort of service wherever possible, so there might be alternative routes to use or the frequency of some services might be reduced. In one or two cases in Ripon, the operator has considered that it is able to continue to provide a service without subsidy.

The Government also recognise that improvements can and must be made. In March 2012, our “Green Light for Better Buses” paper set out our plan for buses. The proposals include reforming bus subsidy, improving competition, incentivising partnership working and multi-operator ticketing, and making access to bus information and ticketing easier for all. There is no doubt that we are all operating in challenging economic times. The Government want to ensure that the bus market is still attractive to all operators, large and small, urban and rural, by ensuring that funding is allocated in the fairest way, while giving the best value for money to taxpayers.

The bus service operators grant, or BSOG, paid to bus operators, has been provided directly to them in a fairly blunt and untargeted way, relating to fuel consumption. We need to be more intelligent in the way we target some of the support we are giving. Some local authorities have told us that they can make bus subsidy deliver better value for money by working in partnership with their bus operators to grow the bus market. That is what the five better bus areas are intended to do, and the top-up fund available to them will give them an additional incentive to innovate. One of the trailblazers is York. I will watch its progress with interest. I think Bristol would be a good comparator for rural North Yorkshire, given that the Bristol better bus area has a rural hinterland more similar to parts of North Yorkshire.

The policy relies strongly on partnership with commercial bus operators rather than contractual relationships, which is why better bus areas are quite distinct from quality contract schemes, in which all bus services would be tendered and the bus service operators grant automatically devolved to local authorities.

The Government are committed to protecting the national bus travel concession, which is of huge benefit to about 11 million people, allowing free off-peak local travel anywhere in England. The concession gives older and disabled people greater freedom, more independence and a lifeline to their communities, gives them access to facilities in their areas, and helps them to keep in touch with family and friends. It can also bring wider benefits to the economy. The Government recognise that the issue of young people’s travel and the level of fares is a complex one, but, although there is no statutory obligation to provide discount-price travel for young people, many commercial and publicly funded reductions are available.

Bus services in rural areas are not just concerned with levels of public funding. Commercial operators will provide services in areas where there are enough passengers, and overall commercial mileage in very rural areas of England is increasing. However, the Government accept that when that is not feasible, local authorities play a vital role in supporting rural bus services. Indeed, about 28% of bus mileage in predominately rural authorities is operated under contract to them. Authorities such as North Yorkshire county council are best placed to decide what support to provide, in response to local views and need and in the light of their overall funding priorities. It is therefore vital for them to maximise the return on every penny of the funding that they provide. To help with that, in October last year my Department met its commitment to publish revised guidance for local authorities on best practice in the procurement of local bus services and other types of road passenger transport. While I recognise that much innovation and hard work is done by councils all over the country, I believe that there is scope for them to do more, not least by highlighting and sharing some really good practice on which other authorities can draw—and I strongly urge them to do so.

Providing bus transport solutions in rural areas also requires effective use of all available options, whether they be traditional fixed-route bus services, community buses, dial-a-ride, or other types of demand-responsive transport such as taxis. My Department is currently undertaking further work in examining the barriers to better procurement of such services.

May I urge the Minister and the Department to analyse the performance of organisations, such as the Dales Integrated Transport Alliance in my constituency, which have been given grants as part of the local sustainability fund, which he mentioned, and to think about whether they have provided value for money?

That is exactly the point that I was trying to make when I spoke of sharing best practice and assessing the effectiveness with which different local authorities have deployed the funds that they have been given

The Government believe in buses. Our vision is of a “'better bus” with more of what passengers want: punctual, interconnected services; greener and more fully wheelchair-accessible buses; and widely available smart ticketing. A more attractive, more competitive and greener bus network will encourage more passengers, cut carbon and create growth.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.