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Local Transport

7. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): What action he is taking to improve public transport in urban areas. [49399]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): Most journeys by public transport in urban areas are taken by bus. The Government provide support of more than £1 billion a year to the bus network. We intend to review this support—in particular, the £300 million fuel duty rebate—to ensure that it helps achieve our transport objectives and improves bus services.

Paul Goggins: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Can I tell him, however, that although bus companies are very happy to provide services along the busy major urban routes, they are failing miserably in extending public transport to many of the estates where people live? Although I welcome important Government initiatives such as the urban bus challenge, will the Secretary of State tell the House what pressure he is bringing to bear on the private operators to ensure that they play their full part in the delivery of public transport across all our towns and cities?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of travel by bus. More than 10 million bus journeys are taken every day, on average, and it is

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therefore right that the bus network should not be regarded as a sort of Cinderella in the public transport world. It should be given the support and the attention that it deserves. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern to me and Ministers in my Department about worsening bus services in their areas. That is unacceptable. In total, about £300 million in fuel duty rebate is being made available to bus operators. We have to see a real return on that level of public support from taxpayers. We are not seeing that return at the moment, which is why we will review our support to see what further steps need to be taken.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): May I point out to the Secretary of State that, however much he might fiddle the figures, the real problem in the south-east of England, particularly in West Sussex, is the lessening number of bus drivers available? Many of them are driven out by high property prices and are moving to the midlands and the north. That means that many bus companies must put up their wages, which means increased costs. Consequently, the subsidies given to local authorities do not stretch. In my county, many routes have been cut simply because more has had to be paid for existing bus services. What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that bus drivers are available to drive the buses that are needed in places such as the south-east where there are extra costs?

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the success of this Government. Since 1997, 1.5 million more people are in work. That may be one of the reasons why he is wearing the red rose of Labour this afternoon—he recognises the success of this Labour Government. He is right to point out, however, that we need a strategy for dealing with this success. That is why we want to review the funding that is going in—for example, the £300 million that we are giving in fuel duty rebate—to make sure that we improve standards in his constituency and in constituencies elsewhere in the country.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): My bus services in Cambridge have improved vastly recently. There is still a need for more frequent bus services in some parts of the city, but there has been a vast improvement in the last five years.

May I urge the Secretary of State, when he implements the Cambridge to Huntingdon multi-modal study, to ensure that public transport comes first and that the Government back the plans for the guided bus, which will take people from Huntingdon to Cambridge and ensure that they no longer need to use their cars for this purpose?

Mr. Byers: I am pleased to hear that the bus service in Cambridge is improving. I am acutely aware of the importance that local people attach to the Huntingdon to Cambridge guided bus route. We are looking carefully at the proposals that have come from the multi-modal study report, and we will want to make decisions shortly. Of course, the great strength of that kind of inclusive approach is that all forms of transport are considered.

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The proposal that has come forward from that study is exciting, it shows real innovation, and we will want to give it detailed and appropriate consideration.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): The Secretary of State is right to say that we need to look at all forms of transport. Does he agree that in large conurbations such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Bradford there is a fine balance to be struck between road and rail, and that passengers are attracted to public transport by a combination of perception and price? In these dark days for the strategic plan, I am sure that the House is sympathetic to the Government's reasons for instructing the Association of Train Operating Companies to find some good soundbites in respect of railways.

Following the publication in The Sun today of the memo from ATOC, may I ask the Secretary of State one simple question? Given the many unhappy statements that he has been forced to make to the House in recent weeks, and the particular esteem in which he is held by the public, how did he think he would ever get away with burying rises in fares?

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman should know by now not to believe everything he reads in the newspapers. If he were able to produce such a memo, I would be delighted to see it, but I do not think that one exists. That is the fact of the matter.

More interesting is the fact that, although we are discussing bus services on which 10 million journeys a day are made, the hon. Gentleman has nothing to say about that, or about the railway system. This Government and this Secretary of State are getting on with the job of beginning to turn this country's transport system around. That is what we are committed to do, it is what we shall continue to do, and in due course the travelling public will get the benefits of that approach.

Disabled Access

8. Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): What good practice his Department has recognised in respect of councils promoting better access and mobility. [49400]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): Earlier this month, we announced that Telford and Wrekin council, Nottinghamshire county council and the London borough of Lewisham had been awarded beacon status for their good practice in ensuring that they provide better access to services for local residents through imaginative local transport schemes.

Ms Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for her answer, but may I raise with her the concerns of my constituent Mrs. Carson, who has a disability and relies on a motorised wheelchair to get about? What does my hon. Friend have to say to Sheffield city council about the fact that one of its departments—social services—has spent thousands of pounds adapting Mrs. Carson's council house, while another department has refused to fund the construction of a ramp at the end of the walkway where Mrs. Carson lives, thus making her virtually a prisoner in her own home?

Ms Keeble: The case shows how important it is to make sure through beacon council schemes and the like

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that local authorities extend best practice and prevent people from becoming prisoners in their own home. My hon. Friend might be aware that under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 local authorities have responsibilities to ensure that disabled people can exercise their rights of access to goods, facilities, services and premises. The case she describes, which arises in a Liberal Democrat council, is a complex one, and in the interests of ensuring that the services provided to her constituent are improved, I ask her to send me the full details. I will make sure that officials advise the council.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Is the Minister aware of the importance of access to jobs for those who are unemployed? The unemployment rate on the Isle of Wight is 5.8 per cent., compared to an average rate in the south-east of England of 1.7 per cent. A recent report states:

Will the Minister consider redesignating the rural bus challenge, which was most welcome, the rural transport challenge, so that Isle of Wight council can apply to the Government for money to spend on supporting ferry journeys?

Ms Keeble: The Government are acutely aware of the need to make sure that people have access to jobs. Our approach differs somewhat from the one adopted by the previous Administration, which was simply to tell people to get on their bike. We have provided support to enable unemployed people to get buses to work through schemes such as the urban bus challenge, and our support for rural buses makes provision for 4 million additional people to get to work. The hon. Gentleman never fails to raise constituency issues, and I am sure he knows that we have examined extremely carefully the special needs of the Isle of Wight. However, I suspect that most people can find jobs in the local job market, and we provide support for bus services there.

David Wright (Telford): May I congratulate Telford and Wrekin council on securing beacon status for access and mobility? Is my hon. Friend aware that the council, working with its partners, has increased the use of local buses on the red line route in the town by 40 per cent. in the past two years?

Ms Keeble: Yes, my hon. Friend's local authority's beacon status is well deserved both through the dial-a-ride scheme that he mentioned and a new service called the Wrekin Ryder. By increasing the rural bus subsidy grant, the Government have provided for an extra 4 million bus passenger journeys, which is a huge commitment to improving transport services for rural communities.

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