§ 3.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)
Over the last 24 hours in particular the House has had to face some very difficult and hard decisions, but it is appropriate that, those decisions having been taken, we should turn our minds to other matters of concern to ordinary people. I am extremely grateful to Mr. Speaker and the Minister for allowing me the opportunity to place before the Government the plight, not yet desperate but increasingly difficult, of the motorists of rural areas. It is for me only to point out that plight. It is for the Government to take note of it and perhaps provide some solutions for it.
It may be appropriate to look back over the last 10 or 15 years. Undoubtedly in the urban areas over the last 15 years there has been a massive increase in car ownership. The result of that in urban areas has been a falling away of the receipts and services of both trains and buses. In urban areas that has meant that a fairly simple measure had to be taken, that of cutting back the services.
In rural areas, by contrast, the growth of motor car ownership has taken place only in the last 10 years. I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that we in the rural areas are not quite so affluent as those in the urban areas and therefore we came on the scene much later. Equally, we followed the same pattern and cut back public transport services as the result of the growth of ownership of motor cars.
It is wrong to call it a cut back. It would be much more accurate to refer to the dismemberment of our services, both train and bus, in rural areas. As a result of that dismemberment, we are 1075 almost completely dependent on the motor car, and it may be as well to remind the House exactly what has happened to the cost of running a motor car during the last three or four years.
In November 1971, petrol cost 22p a gallon. In November 1974, the cost had risen to 64p a gallon. It would be a brave man who would hazard a guess as to the exact figure within even the next three months. This increase has been a crippling imposition, particularly on people in the rural areas where, as I have said, the car has become the only possible means of transport.
In urban areas, as a result of that increased cost, people are going back to the trains and buses. Of course there are problems and of course staffing difficulties play a major part in those problems, but at least the services and the basic routes are there and can be stepped up in the face of public demand.
In rural areas there is no such possibility. When railway services have been closed, the lines have been ripped up. When bus services have been cut, the depots that served the bus lines have been closed, and even the bus services cannot be increased as is now needed. Thus in the rural areas we are left with the car as an essential means of transport.
It is essential for getting people to work. It is not only that farm workers may have to travel a mile or 1½ miles, often at a very early hour, to get to milking and other farm jobs. Main areas of population and of work are often long distances from rural communities. The car is absolutely vital, therefore, for our workers.
It is also vital for many people in country areas for school runs. Without the car it would very often be impossible to get children to school. Shopping in rural areas is quite a different thing from shopping in urban areas. If one wishes to go into a market town, often one can go only by car because there is no possible alternative. The buses which do run are run at the wrong times and one can probably return home only on the next day or at a completely inconvenient time. I should add that even if aged parents live only in the next village and 1076 have to be visited, there is no possible way of doing that except by car.
We are, therefore, left with the car, which now presents a tremendous problem in keeping it on the road in areas in which wage levels are still well below the national average. In my part of the world, Dorset, one can regard £25 a week not as a reasonable wage but as the wage earned by many people. To run a car as a necessity on such a wage is becoming more and more difficult.
I said that there was a possibility of price rises in the near future. The Minister will have noticed what the Shah of Iran said yesterday about the need for price increases for the oil producers. The Minister will know, equally, that the petrol companies have price increases very much in the pipeline, and they must be coming forward.
I want to give the Minister just one example of how this hits people in my constituency. We have only one large engineering works—Westlands, at Yeovil. Of the 5,500 people who work at West-lands, more than half come in to work from the rural hinterland around Yeovil. Therefore, about 2,500 people have no alternative in travelling to work at West-lands but to travel by motor car. In urban areas people are encouraged to share motor cars and possibly to share costs. But if one lives in a scattered community in a rural area that is quite impossible. People tend to travel to work one person to one car because the problems of shift work, holidays, and so on make it impossible for people living more than two or three miles apart to use the same car to travel to work.
If one takes a particular run from Dorchester to Yeovil, one finds that about 50 people who work at Westlands live in Dorchester and have a round trip of 45 miles a day. The cost of that has more than doubled, so they are now paying £5 a week to get to work. That is unacceptable. If one takes into account the possibility that that cost may rise by another £2 or £3 a week for petrol alone, leaving aside the cost of running a car, one appreciates that this makes it all the more serious a matter for those people.
If we go on like this we shall begin to destroy the balance of our society in rural areas, because of necessity those 1077 who live in rural areas and who want to live there will be pushed, as costs escalate, into moving nearer to their place of work. In particular, in our part of the world we shall be left with a society which is not balanced and which contains a very high proportion of people in the upper age ranges. That would be bad for the rural areas and, indeed, bad for towns such as Yeovil which at present we serve so well.
I suggest to the Minister that we have two particular problems here. The first problem we all know and accept. That is that we must conserve energy. That is why most Opposition Members did not vote against the increase in VAT on petrol. It would have been wrong for us to do so. But, at the same time, we are seriously disturbed about the possibility of further increases in the price of petrol. We believe that help must be given to those who live in rural areas.
I have five suggestions which may be of some assistance. First, the Government may care to consider again accepting some form of liberalisation of transport in rural areas. The Minister will remember that we suggested this is an amendment to the Transport Bill. Unfortunately, it was defeated. If that suggestion were adopted, it would help because it would conserve petrol. It would put people back into a more liberalised form of public transport.
Secondly, I suggest that greater use should be made of school buses. Many school buses run to a fixed timetable and there are empty seats. I spoke earlier of school runs. Admittedly they are to private schools and people might not accept the idea of doubling up there, but I know many parents who would be prepared to pay for a child to go on a school bus, and that would effect some saving and would help to keep cars off the road.
My third suggestion is more controversial. I believe that we would save energy if we went back to the 50 mph speed limit. If we are in the middle of an energy crisis, serious consideration should be given to this point. If, as we expect, the cost of petrol goes up again, we might also have to consider the possibility of moving to a two-tier system of pricing petrol. I appreciate that it would be very difficult. It might be ruled out on the grounds of administrative cost, but these people who suffer hardship should 1078 be able to get a basic allowance of petrol at a lower price. Thereafter the price of petrol for ordinary motoring and luxury motoring—if one can call any motoring these days a luxury—should run free, at possibly double the figure of the cheaper petrol. This has been applied at times of emergency in other countries and it should be explored in more detail.
Finally, I wish to deal with a point where I believe not only the rural areas need help. It affects possibly everyone who finds that the cost of getting to work is increasing out of all proportion to any wage increases which might come about. Is it not time that some more settled and more equitable view was taken of the cost of getting to work? It is not unusual for people to pay £5 a week to get to work. I am not at all certain that consideration should not be given by the Chancellor to alleviating this burden in some way, perhaps by giving a tax allowance to everyone who goes to work. That might be a simpler thing to administer——
§ Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
Would my hon. Friend allow me to add a sixth suggestion to the five which he is making? He has mentioned school buses. May I ask the Minister to give urgent—and I mean urgent—reconsideration to the three-mile limit for school buses? This is causing extreme hardship. If the limit were reduced to two miles, or if some element of flexibilty were introduced, it would reduce a great deal of the hardship which I know is experienced in many constituencies.
§ Mr. Spicer
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is just the sort of area in which help could be provided. It would serve the dual purpose of taking motor cars off the road, cutting out unnecessary journeys, and inducing passengers to use the bus which is already running.
It would be ghastly if we found that our rural areas were once again to be the first areas in the United Kingdom to feel the effects of inflation, unemployment and depopulation which occurred in the 1930s. We cannot stand idly by and allow that to happen. I have mentioned that the balance is changing in favour of the towns. We do not want a drift from the countryside to the towns. It would be bad for the countryside, for the towns and for the country as a whole. But people 1079 are fighting a losing battle against rising costs, and the car is vital to rural life in the circumstances in which we now live.
§ It being Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Carmichael.]
§ Mr. Spicer
I would accept that motion willingly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I apologise for having rather outstayed my time.
§ Mr. Spicer
I apologise yet again, Sir. I misunderstood.
I had virtually finished, but I should like to draw the Minister's attention once more to the vital need to do something to help our rural areas. This is a vital factor in our life in rural areas. If I speak for Dorset, it is in rural terms an affluent part of the country. How much more must this problem apply to Scotland, Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom, where wage rates are lower than they are in Dorset? What is at risk is the whole structure and balance of life in our rural areas. I hope that the Minister and the Government will take note of what I have said.
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Carmichael)
The hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer) has done well to draw attention to a situation which is becoming distressingly familiar in rural areas and to which the recent pressure of rising prices has added a further cruel twist. The House will have been sitting for about 26 hours fairly soon, but I still feel that this is an important topic to end such a marathon sitting to show that, despite all the large affairs of state with which we have been dealing, we still consider as fundamentals the transport of people and their ability to live decent and reasonably full lives in the rural and less populated areas.
Public transport services, both rail and bus, have dwindled over the past 10 or 20 years. Bus operators in urban and 1080 rural areas alike have found themselves squeezed by falling levels of demand and the pressure of rising costs. It is ironical in the context of this debate that the main factor undermining the economics of the bus industry during this period was the private car. The figures tell their own story. It is always salutary to look at the figures, and these are staggering.
About 16,000 million passenger journeys were made by bus in 1950 when there were 2½ million cars on the road. In 1970 there were 9,000 million passengers journeys by bus and over 11 million cars. The demand for buses had almost halved while the car population increased fivefold.
I have been dealing with this situation and trying to find solutions for some time. There is, I know, something of a chicken-and-egg argument about whether bus services were withdrawn because of loss of patronage or whether people bought cars because of declining bus services. If one looks at any area in detail one is bound to find a little of both elements, but it is clear that, irrespective of the availability of buses, many people switched to the car because of its greater convenience and the greater mobility it gave them, and that enough people did this to make a tremendous dent in the demand for public transport.
This says something significent about what people are willing to pay for the motor car. The hon. Member made comparisons about affluence in rural and urban areas, but, perhaps because of the much greater advantage of a car in a rural area, the ratio of car ownership in rural areas tends to be considerably higher.
A number of detailed studies, including those carried out by the Department four years ago in Devon and West Suffolk, have brought out the extremely high proportion of journeys made by car compared with those made by bus even when there is a scheduled bus service.
Against this background and the pressure of rising costs, it is hardly surprising that bus operators have no longer been able to continue the level of services that was provided 20 or even 10 years ago out of the revenue from fares. But, despite the rising tide of car ownership over the past two decades, many people do not or cannot drive and do not for one reason or another have access to a motor 1081 car. These people are dependent on some form of public transport in order to get about and lead a full life.
The central Government have made increasing funds available to help the bus industry since the mid-1960's in the form of remission of fuel duty—full remission was given in the Finance Act 1974—and through the new bus grant, which is half the cost of a new vehicle for use on stage services.
On top of that, in rural areas local authorities have been empowered since 1968 to give financial support to bus services needed for the benefit of persons residing in rural areas. When they use these powers to subsidise services the central Government pay half the cost as a specific grant, although from April 1975 the specific central Government contribution will be absorbed into the new arrangements for financial support on a county council's transport expenditure generally and the new transport supplementary grant.
I know that Dorset County Council has made good use of these powers and enabled a number of services which would otherwise have been withdrawn to keep going both in the area represented by the hon. Member and also in the area to the east. Thanks partly to additional funds of this sort, but mainly to their own efforts and their skill in making the best operational use of the resources available, the various bus operators in the area—both subsidiaries of the National Bus Company and private operators-have kept a basic network of services going.
§ Mr. Spicer
I accept what the Minister says on that matter. At the same time there is no doubt that, in terms of cost, travel in rural areas has become outrageously expensive. Even with these supplementary payments and support from the county and district councils, travel in rural areas is outrageously expensive. Some old-age pensioners who travel half to three-quarters of a mile have to pay 8p or 10p for such journeys. That becomes prohibitive in rural areas. I hope that the Minister will take account of that and not believe that all is well with rural services as a result of these subsidies.
§ Mr. Carmichael
I assure the hon. Gentleman that no one in my position in 1082 the Department of the Environment would think that all was well with rural services. A great deal of effort has gone into dealing with this matter. Different Governments have continually tried to help transport in rural areas. I get a number of Adjournment debates which come some way into this category of rural transport. Therefore, I am only too keenly aware of the problem. Indeed, the problem in Scotland is particularly bad, because the sparseness of the population is even greater and that creates additional problems for the bus operator, whether private or public.
§ Mr. Lawrence
Is the Minister aware of the great distress facing local councils throughout the country over these transport relief costs with which the Government assist? The councils are having great difficulties in paying for these rural transport costs under the existing grant. Are there are particular proposals in mind to increase the subsidy to local authorities? I am speaking particularly of the Staffordshire County Council, which has great concern over this problem. Is there any proposal for increasing the subsidy in that regard?
§ Mr. Carmichael
We are now moving to a totally different type of grant in the transport allocation of grants. It is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer as to how much can be made available for any particular local authority for any particular service. Instead of getting a specific grant for various individual services, local authorities will have more freedom to cut their coats according to their cloth and according to the style that is necessary for the circumstances of their areas. I do not think that this will be a panacea.
We do not have money in great supply to give to local authorities. The option for them to decide is better than the previous position, but many of the grants will continue in any case. When the supplementary grants are ultimately given to local authorities and they know how much they are getting we may know more about it in the House because I am sure that hon. Members will wish to question my right hon. Friend and myself about their areas and will make pleas about specific services.
I have tried within the Department to work out something with the committees 1083 of operators and the trade unions. It is a very thorny problem. It is, as somebody once said, like drawing a map of the Balkans. There are no actual points of delineation. The hon. Member may be able to say that certain areas are urban and others are rural, but over the country as a whole the situation is much more complicated. Partly due to the additional funds which have been made available over the years, but mainly because of operators making the best use of their resources, many operators have managed to keep services going.
It may be that in view of the sharp rise in the cost of private motoring some people who at present travel to work by car will be able to switch to bus. In so far as this happens, it should of course strengthen the economics of the bus services and may even make it possible to expand the network at some points.
The hon. Member made a plea for greater flexibility of bus operators and referred to the Opposition amendments to the Road Traffic Bill which were debated last Session. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport and I made clear at the time, the reason why the Government were opposed to those amendments was not due to any insensitivity to the plight of people living in rural areas or to any indifference to the problems. From the time of the Jack Committee onwards, we have all been agreed on the analysis of the problems.
The reason why we rejected those amendments was that we were far from convinced that they would achieve what the Opposition hoped for from them. The problems are fairly easy to grasp. The real difficulty comes in devising satisfactory solutions. It may be that the problems can be dealt with only in the context of particular localities, or that some more general solution might be practicable. That is why I am holding further consultations with both sides of the bus industry and with the local authority associations with a view to identifying the areas of agreement and disagreement about possible approaches to the problem.
In our discussions we will certainly take account of the changes in the costs of private motoring and the implications which these have for the provision of transport in rural areas.
1084 While these consultations are going on, however, it would clearly be folly for the people directly involved in the situation on the ground simply to sit back and wait. The local response to the situation is vital, and particularly the exercise by the county council of its duty under Section 203(l)(a) of the Local Govment Act 1972to develop policies which will promote the provision of a co-ordinated and efficient system of public passenger transport to meet the needs of the county".The hon. Member has referred to the need for flexibility. The scope for flexibility which exists within the present system should not be lost sight of, and the new duties of the county council provide a means of developing it. It may well be, for example, that much of the demand for public transport comes from areas which are too scattered to warrant the use of a conventional bus.
But there may be scope—I merely use this as an illustration—for feeder services of possibly mini-buses or of post buses which would serve the outlying areas and connect with the basic network of conventional services. Again, there may be scope for varying existing licences to enable the services to cater for other villages not at present served.
It is not uncommon for major employers in the local centres of employment to arrange their own services under contract. There may be scope here to extend such services to cover a wide area or to make services provided in this way available for other passengers.
It is wrong to suggest that the present system is so rigid that nothing can be done except what is already done. But there must be close liaison between the local authority and the bus operators. If any worthwhile ideas emerge from such discussions it would be as well to discuss them with the traffic commissioners for the area to see whether there are any good reasons why they should not be adopted.
I give two illustrations mentioned by the hon. Gentleman which have been examined and which are partly successful. One is the school bus and the other is the post bus. They have possibilities, but there are difficulties in that they tend to be going to the centre of towns at a time when other people, particularly old people, do not want to go. When I was 1085 on the Opposition Benches I intervened on this matter in a debate to say that there was not much point in taking an old lady into a market town on a wet Tuesday at 8 a.m. if she could not get back until 4 o'clock in the afternoon.
The post buses are usually going out early in the wrong direction, to the rural areas, and they come in rather later. I know a number of areas in Scotland intimately, and I know their transport problems. Although I live in the middle of a large conurbation with reasonably good transport services, particularly in my part, I am aware of the dire need to find a solution to the general problem.
§ Mr. Spicer
Does the Minister accept also that the present bus service nowhere near meets the needs of the ordinary individual? How the companies work out their timetables the good Lord only knows. I have no idea. People are left marooned. They have to go into the major towns on market day at 8.30 a.m. and either turn round and come back at 9.30 a.m. or wait until 3.30 p.m. The school bus would be much more acceptable, particularly to the elderly people, who could go to the day care centre, having done their shopping, and make a full day of it.
§ Mr. Carmichael
What the hon. Gentleman has said emphasises that there are a number of ways of looking at the matter. It can be considered in the general or in the particular, and I think that the answer would be a combination of both. Discussions are still going on between both sides of the industry and the local authorities. We have probably been going too far in looking for a single solution up to now in all cases when flexibility may give more possibilities.
The hon. Gentleman referred in his speech to the possibility of relief for the rural car user. Any question of a tax allowance for travelling to work, or exemption from vehicle excise duty or tax on petrol for such journeys, is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not think that I am avoiding the question, because although the Government are in some ways one there are people with responsibility in particular fields.
1086 Any special relief, in whatever form, is likely to lead to anomalies and to further dissatisfaction between people in different areas and between people within the same area whose expenditure patterns differ. This is particularly the case because the revenue lost as a result of such relief would have to be made up through increases in taxation or reductions in public expenditure in some areas. Inevitably, some other group of taxpayers would object to such changes on the valid ground that they discriminated against their interests. If that apparently simple solution were adopted, Adjournment debates in the future would be almost endless.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the impact of price increases which are being sought by the oil companies. The Government are only too well aware of the consequences of oil price increases on all oil consumers, whether private, commercial or industrial. Representations have been made by many classes of oil consumers that future price increases should not be borne by them. A good reason can always be put forward to support that contention. The Government will take all these special problems into account when it becomes necessary to amend the maximum retail price orders for motor fuels and paraffin.
The painful fact is, however, that there is no way in which we can avoid the effects of the fivefold increase in crude oil prices that has occurred since October 1973. It seems that the increase will become even greater than that and that it will become impossible for any Government in the Western world to do much about it.
We must all recognise that mobility in rural areas will become increasingly costly whether we are thinking of private or public transport and whether the costs are borne directly by the user or shared by the ratepayer and taxpayer. It becomes all the more important to ensure that a level of public transport provision is aimed at locally which reflects the needs of the area and which puts the available resources to best use. In that respect I believe that the local authorities have a crucial rôle to play.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Four o'clock.