|Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords]
Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is on to a good point. The Minister needs to tell us to which schemes the concessions will apply. His constituency, like mine, probably has a number of community bus schemes run by volunteers. Does the Bill apply only to schemes that get a bus grant or will schemes that get other grants also be eligible for concessionary fares?
Mr. Turner: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. There is certainly a range of different types of bus service and other public transport services, which I shall come to shortly.
The second issue relates, again, to the imbalance in the size of areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold mentioned the journey from Inverness to Ullapool, which I confess I have never made. However, I have undertaken a number of bus journeys in my time from, say, Westminster to Walworth road. That journey takes me through the areas of three local authorities in London. If I were a pensioner and I went through three local authorities outside London, perhaps in Gloucestershire, my journey would not be eligible for any mandatory subsidy and in some areas no subsidy would be provided. However, there is a requirement on London authorities to get together to provide a scheme. Therefore, people in London have a benefit that I assumeI do not know the detailsdoes not apply to people travelling from Cheltenham, through the Cotswold district, to Tewkesbury. That is unfair.
Again, additional resources will be put into London, because it already has a scheme. I am referring to a large area with 10 million people who can all travel by bus because a dense network of bus routes has already been provided. We can therefore assume a high take-up per person of bus journeys. If reimbursement is on the basis of the number of journeys made, we shall start with a heavy disposition of resources in favour of one of the richest cities in the country. The corollary is that that is paid for by some of the people with the least dense network of bus services, who are least likely to use those services or even to have an opportunity to travel on them.
Will the Minister comment on the fairness of a system that pours more money into London, because it happens to have many bus services and an area-wide scheme, as compared with the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold and for Tewkesbury, where there may be no such scheme?
The law provides that an authority may make agreements with neighbouring authorities. The Isle of Wight, however, has no neighbouring authorities, so the local authority cannot make an agreement about reciprocal arrangements for a scheme even if it were willing to do so, which for the time being it is not.
My third point relates to local government reorganisation. The Government spokesman in the Lords said that it was likely that county councils would be abolished in the near future. We have already seen the results of that in my near neighbouring authority of Hampshire. Until recently, it had one local transport authority, but now there are three. I do not know what the particular arrangements are in Hampshire, but there is no requirement on Portsmouth city council, Southampton city council and Hampshire county council to formulate one travel zone so that travel concessions can be inter-operable. They are permitted to do so, but there is no obligation on them to do so.
Let us consider people who live just outside Southampton city in, say, Totton, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). Is the Minister saying that Hampshire county council should not benefit from the money that the Government are putting aside to assist authorities to meet the costs of the Bill, because there is no legal obligation on that council to provide a concessionary scheme between Totton and the centre of the city of Southampton? Or is he saying, conversely, that where local authorities have got together to form an inter-operable scheme, the Government will provide for that scheme too?
I should like to know for which of the different modes of transport the scheme in London provides. I understand from the Library brief that
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold tells me that it applies to all such services, but will it apply to the Gosport tram, which is being constructed? Does it apply to water bus services in London? There is no mention of that. If it applies to water bus services in London, why does it not apply to water bus services elsewhere, such as between the Isle of Wight and Southampton, the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth or the Isle of Wight and Lymington?
A ferry is not different from a large water bus: it goes from A to B, it goes on water and it stops at various points. In most cases, two stops could easily be extended to three or four. Does the scheme apply to water taxis, which are merely a different kind of water bus? Some of them operate on an on-call basis, but others operate what is, effectively, a scheduled service. There was a scheduled service during the America's cup jubilee week between the Black Watch, a large cruise ship that was moored off Cowes, and the parade in Cowes, where champagne was drunk and entertainment took place. That would be a popular service on which to provide a concessionary fare for the many hundreds of rich Americans who stayed on the Black Watch and drank champagne on the parade at Cowesat the expense of the Isle of Wight council, I might add and I am thankful for thatduring the America's cup jubilee week. I hope that the Minister will deal with those questions when replying.
Finally, I endorse the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold about traffic generation. It is well recognised that consumption increases if the cost of a commodity is lowered. That will surely be the case if we lower the cost of transport for a large group of elderly people. Whether they travel to work, as my hon. Friend suggested, or for leisure or education purposes, I have no doubt that there will be a great deal of additional travel. To what extent are the Government committed to dealing with the additional traffic generated by people taking advantage of the concessions?
Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) mentioned the differences in support provided within London and elsewhere and the consequences of that support. My greatest concern about the Billit is one reason why I strongly support the amendmentis that it sets financial support in the context of what exists today. It does not reflect the fact that many authorities, particularly those around London, are struggling to implement concessionary fare schemes because they have been forced to divert available funds into supporting socially necessary bus routes. The problem with legislation that bases compensation on current schemes is that it ratchets up the costs for any county councils that aspire to introducing a concessionary scheme but have not yet been able to do so. It makes it much more difficult for them to do that.
I will give the Minister a practical example from my county of Surrey. Its bus services suffer from great pressure, which comes from two sources. First, the bus routes in several areas are not adequately used by the population but, because they remain an essential artery for those who genuinely need them, the county council has rightly judged that it needs to support them. Secondly, bus routes in Surrey are adversely affected by the degree of financial support that is provided by central Government to transport in London; it is hugely disproportionate to that provided to services outside London. That has manifested itself most recently in the question of the survival of one route that runs across the border from Kingston-upon-Thames, through my constituency and into southern Surrey. The problem is that the introduction in London of a £1 flat fare for buses has meant that, on that route, operators that come out from central London as far as Epsom can charge £1 on their route, but operators that come back from Surrey into the fringes of London do not receive the same subsidy and so cannot charge the same fare. The inevitable consequence is that those operators will be driven off that route.
The knock-on effect of the operators losing what is probably the busiest and most profitable section of a long route that covers much of the rest of the countyit goes all the way down as far as Guildfordis that the remainder of the route is now under threat. The remainder of the route contains the only principal artery to several villages on the way, but it also represents the major bus service to one of the principal local hospitals. It is inevitable that if the subsidy that is provided to operators in central London causes Surrey operators to lose the most profitable part of the route and they ultimately decide that they can no longer provide the full service, the county council will have to step in and provide additional subsidy from the small amount that it has to support bus services in the county to enable the key parts of the route further into Surrey to survive.
In the past few years, Surrey county council has been working towards achieving a concessionary scheme that offers a 50p flat rate to pensioners in the county. It has so far been unable to do that, simply because so many of the resources at its disposal for public transport are being gobbled up in supporting bus services in the way that I described. The dilemma is that if Surrey county council continues to aspire to deliver a 50p flat rate concessionary fare scheme, it will cost it more money to do so. The only reason that it will not receive the funding that will be provided to other authorities that can provide such a concessionary scheme, is that it has had to support socially necessary schemes elsewhere.
The legislation fails to take into account that several local authorities in this country are working hard to develop and introduce concessionary schemes, but have yet to do so. There is a real danger that unless the financial support provided to local authorities that operate schemes is extended to those authorities that have schemes on the table and have realistic, short-term ambitions to introduce them, there will be fewer schemes, not more.
I urge the Minister for Transport to consider that issue as he considers the detail of the Bill and to realise, as he considers the amendments, that there must be complete transparency in setting out the parameters whereby local authorities receive funding as a result of the changes and Government support and decisions on concessionary fares in general. It is important that those people who are frustrated by the absence of concessionary fare schemes in their areas can see exactly what is being decided, where the money is going and why.
That becomes apparent with regard to concessionary fare schemes for people who live close to boundaries, especially in and around London. Many people live on the fringes of London and look with jealousy and frustration at their neighbours a few streets away across the London boundary, who enjoy totally or partly paid-for concessionary schemes, as a result of the additional subsidy in London. I receive endless complaints from pensioners in my constituency, who ask why their neighbours get a concessionary fare scheme but they do not. I suspect many Members receive similar complaints. That frustration will increase as they see the change come into force and men between the ages of 60 and 65 become entitled to concessionary fare schemes and yet their neighbours across the boundary cannot do so because of the distortion in public subsidy. That is why it is so important that we set out clearly the funding mechanisms and that the process becomes more transparent. People must be aware of the amount of money that goes to different authorities and of the fact that they have the right and ability to challenge that process.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2001||Prepared 20 November 2001|