Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500 - 519)

WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2001

THE RT HON JOHN SPELLAR, MP, MR DENNIS ROBERTS AND MR BOB LINNARD

  500.  What are you doing about it? What are you doing, for example, about the rise in bus operating costs?
  (Mr Spellar) Two different areas there. If we are talking about bus patronage, in some areas it has stabilised. The West Midlands is an example where it has stabilised. London is an example, as you have rightly identified, where there has been an increase in bus patronage.

  501.  But elsewhere?
  (Mr Spellar) Elsewhere, as car ownership is rising, there is still a decline, although that seems to have levelled off a bit. It is still moving down slightly but reasonably stable. It is a fairly slight decline. In a number of areas, the use of the showcase routes where you are having a very regular bus service going down the major routes, particularly into city centres, is achieving an increase in patronage. Unfortunately, that can be sometimes seen to be at the expense of the peripheral routes in those areas. There is a real dilemma there as to whether resources should be concentrated on increasing patronage or how this balances with the question of social exclusion.

  502.  Those are the questions we are asking you, Minister, with respect. We are pointing out there has been a fall of 22.9 million outside the two regions that you were talking about. That is something like 35 per cent of United Kingdom bus journeys. What is your Department doing about it?
  (Mr Spellar) What does that relate as a percentage?

  503.  What is important to us is that you are saying local authorities can change the atmosphere with their local plans, with their local knowledge. Regional offices have an input. Of course they all have an input but surely you as the Department of Transport must be the lead Department giving a clear line of what you want done to arrest the fall in bus patronage?
  (Mr Spellar) With respect, there are two different issues here. One is about the level of bus patronage and we are able to arrest the decline and even achieve slight increases by focussing resources onto the main routes, the high volume routes, and increasing that volume. That works. We do then get a criticism within those same areas that, at the same time, a number of those operators are trimming their peripheral routes which does not do much for volume but may be very important on social exclusion ground. We do have to look at both of those areas, but they are not the same thing.

Helen Jackson

  504.  Is it not the case that bus patronage is very closely linked to costs? Is it not the case that the cost of motoring is continuing to either stay level or go down a bit; whereas the cost of using buses in particular is going up? Unless you are a pensioner on concessionary fares, what is the incentive? What is the Department doing? Yes, they are looking at local plans but they need to do a little bit more than looking at those plans in order to redress that balance.
  (Mr Spellar) If we are looking at the social exclusion issue and the numbers, it is availability.

  505.  It is also cost.
  (Mr Spellar) It is also, on a number of routes, the regularity of the service and the safety of the service. When we do any surveys of passengers, those are rated more highly in the scale than the cost of the service.

  506.  Does not the availability depend on the Passenger Transport Authority being able to have the resources to put in tendered services?
  (Mr Spellar) Not for the tendered services because some of these are on competitive routes but also facilitating those routes, providing bus lanes, making improvements at junctions that facilitate the bus routes and therefore enable a faster journey. This is particularly on commuting into the centres of towns and it has a significant impact on volume. That is quite different from the issue of travel on to peripheral areas and the question of social exclusion, although these are not mutually exclusive.

  507.  If, as the Chairman says, bus patronage is going down, bus lanes, bus gates all have a resources impact. Do you believe that local authorities and transport authorities have the necessary resources to redress the trend that the Chairman is talking about?
  (Mr Spellar) There are a number of factors involved in declining bus usage. It is quite interesting to look at a number of areas of the country. Where we are seeing the greatest reduction in bus usage is precisely in those areas, on whatever your base date is, where there was a lower level of car ownership. This is particularly the case, for example, in the north east of England, where a number of those areas have been moving up closer to the national average in levels of car ownership; whereas in London there has not been such a dramatic narrowing of that gap on levels of car ownership and bus utilisation has increased and equally in the Midlands as well where there has been a marginal increase. There is that factor as well. It is not just one simple factor that is influencing the utilisation of the system.

  508.  With great respect, you have dodged the question: do you think the Passenger Transport Authorities, local authorities, have the necessary resources, other things being equal, to redress the trend?
  (Mr Spellar) There are substantial resources but I equally accept that they are putting the case to us that, as a result of substantial increases in costs in the bus industry, not least because of shortage of drivers and wage increases, there are pressures on their budgets in that area.

  509.  That is where the financial pressure is coming from: the wage or salary increases in bus operators rather than the local and transport authorities?
  (Mr Spellar) All the evidence coming from local authorities is that they are seeing significant increases, particularly where operators are tendering for services. That is quite different from when they are operating services on a commercial basis. Presumably the same factors are having an impact there as well.

Chris Grayling

  510.  One of the consequences of the different levels of public finance available for supporting buses is what you see on the fringes of London, where the subsidy available to London bus operators crossing the boundaries is substantially greater than the subsidy available to those operating from counties outside back into London. What we are seeing happening is that central routes are being taken over by the London operators. The operators from outside no longer have the cherries on which to build their networks and they are disappearing. I do not know if the same is true in Manchester but it seems to me there is a disparity that the Department needs to address because bus patronage outside the metropolitan areas is suffering as a result.
  (Mr Spellar) The rationalisation of operators in areas is not something that is exclusive to the fringes of London. Right across the country, there has been a steady move towards a sole operator provision in many areas, as different companies have exited from different areas. That may be part of an inexorable logic.

  511.  Routes outside the metropolitan areas are disappearing. The route from Kingston to Guildford is operated by London operators and from Kingston to Epsom and by Surrey operators on the whole route. Because the London operators are subsidised, they can offer a flat rate, £1 fare which the Surrey operators cannot. The result is that the whole route through Surrey is disappearing. I do not know if that is happening in places like Manchester as well but there is a real risk that the drive to build bus usage in London certainly will remove bus services outside London because the subsidised operators are removing the financial viability of routes that go from just inside London right outside.
  (Mr Spellar) One of the requirements of our policy is to try and achieve a shift towards public transport, particularly in the conurbations and particularly in London. That is a mechanism for dealing with very considerable congestion problems in London. If there are consequences of that as a result of the greater efficiency of utilisation of the London services, that is a difficulty but one that is very much in line with trying to achieve more people travelling by bus on those services.

  Chris Grayling: Given that bus patronage outside London, in other parts of the country, is falling, one of the consequences of what is happening in London—and I hope your Department is going to be very mindful of this—is that bus patronage is being driven down through the consequence of a subsidised geographic area bumping into a substantially less subsidised geographic area. The consequence is that outside patronage is going and routes are disappearing.

Andrew Bennett

  512.  If social exclusion is increasing because bus fares are going up, is there any evidence that more people are running cars that are not insured and do not have road tax?
  (Mr Spellar) I do not know that social exclusion is increasing because of bus fares going up. The complaints that I get are much more to do with the availability of services. That is particularly the case not just on peripheral estates but also at certain times of the day.

  513.  Do you not feel socially excluded if you cannot get a bus at a time when you want it?
  (Mr Spellar) Yes. That is about availability more than about price. There are considerable concerns being expressed regarding availability of early buses but about the trimming of routes. Some of that is to do with public safety issues, I fully accept. Some bus companies are withdrawing from certain areas, even ironically in an issue raised with me by a member of the public and also by a Member of Parliament, withdrawing from one particular area between the hours of four and six in the afternoon, which you would think would be peak usage. Unfortunately, it is also the time when youngsters come out of school and they have been bricking the buses. Therefore, the bus company have withdrawn from that area during that period. These are some of the broader reasons why routes are not being covered and that obviously requires a multi-agency response.

  514.  What about the effect on insurance and road tax?
  (Mr Spellar) That is very considerable in its own right. It is estimated up to a million cars are not registered in this country and by definition a very considerable percentage are not insured.

  515.  Is that going up?
  (Mr Spellar) It is very hard to get a handle on the exact numbers and therefore on the trend line save that we are aware of it being a very considerable number, not least from the measures that we are now putting into place to deal with abandoned vehicles, but also in operations such as Operation Cubitt in Kent, where we are dealing with unlicensed vehicles as well and also linking up with the Association of British Insurers in order to match the two databases.

Chairman

  516.  You do have accurate information though, do you not, Minister, because the DVLA knows how many people take the first part of the driving licence and do not take the second part and then presumably disappear out of your figures. It is clear from the rise in vehicle ownership that there are people driving who are uninsured because they have not got their licences. You have access to those figures because the DVLA can tell you how many people have taken the first part of the exam.
  (Mr Spellar) We would know how many people might have driving licences. That would not necessarily tell us how many at any particular time actually own cars.

  517.  No, but you could get a very good idea of the trend. You were saying you had no indication of the trend within your own Department's agencies. There are various ways in which you could build a model which would give you a very good indication of the trend.
  (Mr Spellar) It would give an indication as to the potential scale but accurate figures and therefore the percentage increase would be more difficult.
  (Mr Roberts) We have some information about vehicles without tax. We do a survey every two years where we try to monitor this. It is quite difficult. There are quite large errors around the estimate, but the trend is broadly flat in recent years. In the last year or so, we have been putting a lot of effort into reducing tax evasion and that has had an effect. The steps that the DVLA have been taking have been quite effective, as has the work in the Cubitt experiment that the Minister referred to, which was primarily about abandoned cars but had the knock-on effect of considerably reducing tax evasion in the area.

Miss McIntosh

  518.  In paragraph 6.69 of the Annual Report, you say that local road maintenance has suffered in the past from under funding. In paragraph 6.52 of the same document you announce the transfer of the first portion of non-core roads, trunk roads, to local highway authorities. What additional funding is the Department going to make available to the highway authorities to make good the roads which your Department has already admitted are in a bad state of repair?
  (Mr Spellar) Part of the negotiations that take place, and one of the reasons why they are probably so protracted, is about the level of the dowry that accompanies the transfer of the trunk road when it is being detrunked from the Highways Agency to a local authority. That is exactly where the local authorities are seeking to ensure that they receive sufficient money in order both to get the road up to standard but also to maintain it in an appropriate standard.

  519.  It is still ongoing?
  (Mr Spellar) In many cases, it is going on for a while, precisely because of arguments about those levels.


 
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