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Buses: Rural Services

Volume 799: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2019


Tabled by

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Randerson, and with her permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Bus Services Act 2017 provides a number of tools, such as enhanced partnerships and franchising powers, to facilitate local authorities working together with operators and communities to provide improved bus services in rural areas. Furthermore, our Total Transport pilot projects encourage local authorities to innovate by joining up the commissioning of publicly funded transport services.

My Lords, the reality on the ground is that rural bus services have been in decline for some years now, to the extent that there are many quite large villages which no longer have any kind of bus service at all. Have the Government made any assessment of the impact this is having on residents’ ability to access essential public services such as health and education?

We are aware that in certain areas it is a challenge to access certain services using public transport. The Government are doing what they can to support various innovative initiatives to make sure that we improve services. The rural round table in December 2018 focused on these issues and came up with a number of opportunities whereby we can improve services, and we will be working on those opportunities and reporting back soon.

My Lords, owing to the 25% cut in local authority funding for bus services over the last four years, literally hundreds of shire bus routes have disappeared. Given that most rural households have only one car, and that car usually goes to the job, will the Minister consider setting up a group to look at the transport needs of those left behind, how they might be provided for and how we might encourage solutions? For instance, there are Wheels to Work schemes for the young, sharing services with the Post Office or the National Health Service, and community car schemes. I hope the Minister will agree that we now desperately need some new thinking in this area, and we also need some action.

I quite agree with the noble Lord that we need new thinking in this area. It is not just about money; this Government are supporting road passenger transport 12% more in real terms than the last Labour Government. It is about being innovative. The noble Lord was right to name a number of schemes, and I would be grateful to receive more information on them. Schemes that we are already looking at include demand-responsive transport, whereby people in isolated areas can, either on their smartphone or using their traditional phone, call up and get transport to services they need.

My Lords, across England as a whole the number of bus passenger journeys is falling, even though the population is increasing. Last year, the Campaign for Better Transport published a report drawing attention to the crisis in rural transport due to bus cuts and shrinking transport networks, which were leaving people unable to access jobs and creating increasingly congested roads. One of the Campaign for Better Transport’s recommendations was that there should be long-term, ring-fenced, central government funding for rural local authorities to improve, and not just maintain, public transport. Do the Government agree with that recommendation? If so, how much new, additional money do they think local authorities in rural areas alone would need per year to deliver that recommendation?

The noble Lord is right that the number of trips on buses is declining, although they represent 55% of all journeys on public transport. But it is also the case that the total number of trips taken by individuals is declining, and therefore the share of trips on buses has remained around about the same. To go back to the noble Lord’s point about funding, the Government are providing ring-fenced funding where it is needed. For example, we have provided £43 million of ring-fenced funding, which is paid to operators to support less viable services within their communities. We have also provided £65 million of rural services delivery grant, because we recognise that providing services in rural areas is more difficult.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, when the concessionary fares were rolled out under a Labour Government, the uptake in rural areas was greater but the funding to cover the costs was not there? Will my noble friend revisit schemes such as the post bus services that operated successfully between villages and market towns in areas like North Yorkshire, to see whether they can be rolled out again in full?

It is the case that local authorities have a statutory duty to provide some concessionary travel, but they also provide discretionary concessionary travel, which is important too. I am not aware of the scheme that my noble friend noted, but I will be happy if she can send me some details and we will certainly look at this. I reiterate that we are being innovative about making the best use of our assets to make sure that people in rural communities have transport.

My Lords, it says on the bus pass:

“Concessionary travel funded by HM Government with your local authority”.

Should not Her Majesty’s Government therefore be absolutely certain that they are funding travel in rural areas for rural dwellers and for people in urban areas to get to rural places?

I reiterate to the noble Lord that we are providing funding—we are supporting £2.12 billion-worth of funding. It is not just about the money; it is also about being innovative with how we spend it. It is the case that local authorities know what is best for their local communities. It is not up to national government to micromanage hyperlocal bus schedules.

My Lords, in Scotland, thanks principally to free travel for older people, who can travel anywhere throughout Scotland absolutely free, rural bus services are being maintained and indeed expanded—incidentally, this is with help from the English taxpayer. Why is such a scheme not possible also in England?

We operate things differently in England than they do in Scotland. But I stand by what I said earlier in that funding from central government is available. Local authorities can of course also access council tax, business rates and other local income. However, at the end of the day, it is about using money more effectively, not just throwing more money at it.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in Switzerland, villagers in any village with more than 600 people have a statutory right to have a bus or train service at least once an hour? Should we not look at that example here?

My Lords, we operate things differently than they do in Switzerland. The Swiss may decide that that is best for their local communities, and it is up to any local authority in England to do the same if it thinks it is cost-effective for its local taxpayers.