HC Deb 17 July 2003 vol 409 cc435-7
13. Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)

If she will make a statement on funding of rural community transport. [126289]

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

Funding for rural community transport schemes is available from a wide range of sources. They include the Department for Transport's rural bus challenge, which provides start-up funding, and the Countryside Agency's rural transport partnership and parish transport fund programmes. Long-term funding is available through the bus service operators' grant, and local authorities can also use their revenue support grant, and capital resources provided through the local transport plan system, to support community transport schemes.

Norman Lamb

I thank the Minister for that response. I agree that the Countryside Agency has done a great deal to encourage and facilitate the development of community transport throughout the country, but is he aware of the very real concern that exists that, as the pump-priming money comes to an end, there is no sustainable funding to take its place? What is he doing to deal with this issue, and is he prepared to meet representatives of the Community Transport Association and other interested parties to discuss their concerns further?

Alun Michael

I am happy to confirm the importance of community transport, and I have met several people involved in a number of schemes in the past year. It is also worth noting that community transport plays an increasingly important role in rural areas generally. In recognition of that and as part of the Government's public service agreement target for improving rural services, we aim to increase the percentage of settlements in England benefiting from community transport to more than 50 per cent. by 2006. Pump priming through the Countryside Agency is meant to be just that: pump priming to help kick-start the availability of those activities. I listed in my original answer the various places from which support for community transport schemes is available.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Does the Minister understand the difficulties that local authorities and council tax payers face when rural bus services are funded for three years only? In the fourth year, there is a big hit on the local authority, causing council tax bills to rise even higher. If the services are worth funding, surely they are worth funding indefinitely.

Alun Michael

It is a little odd to suggest, on the one hand, that we should be helping to pump prime while, on the other, complaining when funds are taken away. Local authorities have a role in developing rural transport for their local communities. Through the local transport plans, they are required to produce bus strategies and to consider how to integrate conventional bus services with health and community transport as part of an integrated public transport network. We have tried to provide funding to enable people to realise that innovative schemes based in local communities are an important part of the solution to the problems in rural areas, in which the Government have made a large investment over recent years.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

As the Minister says, that there are 5,000 community transport schemes, running about 60,000 buses across rural areas. People throughout the countryside are extremely concerned that an overspend in the countryside and rights of way right-to-roam mapping exercise has resulted in a drying-up of the pump-primed funding through the Countryside Agency. Bizarrely, visitors to the countryside—walkers—have been given priority for Government funding over those who live in the countryside. Will the Minister reconfirm the central importance of community transport, particularly to the 25 per cent. of rural people who do not own a car, many of whom live in remote areas and are socially excluded? Does he accept that we need not only pump-primed funding, but long-term sustainable revenue funding for those vital services?

Alun Michael

That was a bizarre, ill-informed and muddled question. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that no cuts of the sort about which he talked have been made. The budget for the rural transport partnership has increased since last year by £2 million to meet demand. A hold was put on the "vital villages" expenditure by the Countryside Agency, which was grappling with the problems of success. It had so many applications that it decided, rightly, to prioritise to make sure that money went to the places where it was needed most. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is embarrassed when he looks back at the 18 years of Conservative government, during which his Government did nothing to help rural communities in the way that this Government have done.

Forward to