HL Deb 17 March 1976 vol 369 cc263-310

5.0 p.m.

Lord DE CLIFFORD rose to call attention to the increasing difficulties being experienced by the population of rural areas caused by the diminishing services available to them and the hardships experienced as a result; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in introducing this short debate on rural areas I shall endeavour to keep my speech short because there are a number of other speakers to come and one does not want to run out of time. I am asking your Lordships this afternoon to consider people who, because of the smallness of their number, tend to be forgotten or ignored.

We hear a lot about commuter travel, London allowances and the shortage of buses in London, Manchester and elsewhere, but to someone who lives in the deep country it is surprising that it is possible to catch a bus within a few yards of one's home, or even to get a train. I should like your Lordships to remember that these are people who have rights. They are human beings who exist in situations which are not of their own choosing, but they have as many rights as anyone who lives in Dulwich or in the environs of Manchester or Sheffield. They do not have the advantages of town dwellers. They are people who may live up to two miles from the nearest shop, three to four miles from the nearest bus stop, and 15 miles or more from the nearest town where one can find anything approaching a supermarket.

If we look at what has happened over the last few years we see how the difficulties of these people have grown. The financial climate started to grow colder and money became shorter and, rather like a plant deprived of water, all the outside leaves have started to shrivel. Remote country areas were the first to feel the contraction. To my knowledge, the first to suffer was the maintenance of the small narrow roads which lead all over the country to people's homesteads and small villages. At one time these were maintained by local men who knew everybody, who kept the roads clean, cleared all the drains and the snowdrifts, and were generally full of knowledge about what went on in the local areas. Today what do we find? Someone from the local council drives around in a motor car and has a look at the roads. Then, having decided which of the minor roads needs something done to it, a collection of gentlemen, whom nobody knows, arrives and they proceed to do something which in many cases the local people consider unnecessary.

Next, the rail services vanished. There used to be little rural rail services running all over the country, but they vanished with the closures and the diminution of the money available to run them. Then matters became really difficult. The price of fuel rose and people were compelled to save energy, and the cry went out that private transport must be curtailed. That is comparatively painless to people who live within a few hundred yards of a bus stop, an underground or a commuter service, but what happens in the country? People still have to go two miles to the nearest shop, three to four miles to the nearest bus service and they have to use their own vehicles.

Many people in rural areas run smallholdings as a part-time occupation. What happened when the cost of fuel increased? Deliveries of foodstuffs instantly ceased. Some of these smallholdings run a few chickens, geese or sheep. Perhaps they fatten a few cattle during the summer and they all have to be fed. But when there is a minimum weight of delivery, it means that the food for these people must be fetched and they need their own private transport. The price of fuel rocketed up not only because of the increased cost but because of the imposition of additional taxation. People who live right away from the shops—some of them elderly—used to be served by mobile shops. They continue to be served by them, but such shops cannot be run at a loss. The man running a mobile shop has to pay for the fuel, the additional taxation, the vehicle tax and the additional insurance premiums, so what does he do? In the area which I know best, 2p is added to the price of a loaf of bread, 1p is added to the price of various tins of food, ½p is added to the price of tea and so on. This is especially hard on an ageing population living largely on a pension, which I shall talk about later.

On top of that, the economic climate gets colder and colder. Scattered around the country are small engineering workshops, perhaps employing no more than a dozen people. Orders became short for them and the men started to be laid off. But they still have to live in their houses away from all the facilities which townsmen have, and if they want to survive they must maintain their vehicles.

There were further threats as the climate became more chilly. In the area in which I live, one of the first threats which suddenly appeared was to our ambulance service. Sitting in our local town, Cleo-bury Mortimer, there is an ambulance which has two crews, both of them having lived there for many years. They know their area backwards. It was suggested that this ambulance service might be discontinued and moved to Kidderminster. The local people could not believe this. How is a man who lives in a carpet manufacturing town 17 to 25 miles away from the area he is to serve, to know how, on a dirty, dark, snowy night at two o'clock in the morning, to get to a small house, miles away from the main road, where there has been a severe accident? He may have to walk across a field. How is he to find that house? Similarly, if a lady's confinement is imminent at two o'clock in the morning it will be impossible for the Kidderminster ambulance service to find her. But the local service knows where she is. Those are the kind of threats which are causing country people great anxiety. Over one thousand signatures were collected from this area within 14 days, asking that this suggestion should not be proceeded with. We have not yet heard the result of that petition, but I hope that the local ambulance service will continue.

I turn to the postal service. This fascinated the area in which I live and no doubt it fascinated many other country areas. The introduction of the two-tier system made no impact on anybody, because the service we were getting by the former system was exactly the same as the one we were to get by the two-tier system of first and second class mail. I will admit that there was a slight upsurge in the delivery of first class mail; but it began to sag very quickly and the delivery of first class mail taking two or three days became quite normal. Then the Post Office announced that they were to do away with the second delivery. This was greeted with amazement in the deep rural areas. There never had been a second delivery! So how you do away with what is not there is one of those magician's tricks of which only Sir William Ryland could have thought.

The proposed withdrawal of the Sunday collection service will hit country people very hard. Due to the economies, at present the Saturday morning delivery in rural areas often collects the Saturday morning post. There is no Saturday afternoon collection. If, therefore, the Sunday collection is withdrawn, anybody who has received an important letter by first class post on Saturday morning has no hope of getting into the post an answer, or a request, until the following Monday. This is quite unacceptable. If you wish to put into the post a first class reply—which probably is not very often in deep rural areas, but it may well be necessary—you are deprived of the opportunity for it to reach its destination until the following Tuesday. I consider this a totally unacceptable situation.

Another matter has been drawn to my attention by a number of people, and I have seen it mentioned in the Press and elsewhere. In these deep rural areas many people run together a post office and village store. I am told by a number of people—no doubt the noble Baroness who is to reply will say whether or not I am wrong—that National Health Service contributions are deducted by the Post Office, and I am told also that the self-employed contributions are also deducted. Do these people get two beds in hospital when they are sick, and do they draw double benefits? I am sure that they do not, but I should be grateful if the noble Baroness could clear up this point because it affects a number of people and, in principle, I do not believe that it is right.

There are many more areas in which difficulties exist. I am pleased to see that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby is to take part in this debate, because one of the areas of difficulty is the maintenance of the services of the Church. The grouping together of parishes has been carried out and is producing results. However, the difficulties under which the Church works are enormous and the people who require its services are those who are most devoted to it. I shall not, though, anticipate what the right reverend Prelate may have to say about that matter.

In this country the problem boils down to transport. In certain areas there may be one bus a week to take people to their local town. This bus may allow them to stay in that town for a couple of hours; then it will turn round and come back. There may be a workers' bus which runs in the early morning. People may have to walk a mile and a half in a snowstorm to a bus stop where there is no shelter in order to catch their bus, so they are soaked before they get to work. An elderly lady with an appointment to see her doctor or dentist in her local town who wants to do some shopping there as well, may have to walk three of four miles in a snowstorm, and then have to stand on the edge of the road waiting for the bus which has been delayed by the snow. And when she comes back she may then have to carry in her hands for the same distance, in these appalling conditions, anything between five and 10 lb. of goods.

Transport is a key factor in rural areas. I do not think that town and city people, who complain bitterly, realise how rural areas are suffering. I maintain that this country would not get by these days if it were not for the supreme community spirit which exists. People help each other and turn out at all hours of the day and night to assist those who are in trouble. It is not right that the Government should slap upon people increasing costs of transport such as to reduce their ability to give help over a wide area.

There is one other simple little matter. Many people live anything up to three-quarters of a mile away from the road, and in order to have their weekly or, more probably, fortnightly dustbin collection somebody has to take the bin down to the road. Nobody is objecting to the dustbin collection being only once a fortnight, but the fact that some elderly people may have to carry the bins down and cannot do that without the aid of their neighbours makes people sore. But the community spirit carries them over.

The deep rural communities are slowly getting older and older. The young people will not stay in the conditions which exist today. There is no entertainment for them, and even if there were, they could not get to it because of their numbers. My noble friend Lord Cranbrook, who unfortunately cannot be here today due to having had influenza, pointed out to me that in Suffolk the 1921 population of his village was 300; today, it is 200. Their schools are closed, their chapels are closed and their shop and their post office and their pub are all at risk of being closed because the population is diminishing.

In the past we have heard a number of remarks and suggestions that we might have post office bus services, and I believe experiments were carried out in that matter. The idea appears to have died. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, can tell us whether or not it is being buried. Could we not find some method of running mini-buses? My noble friend Lord Cranbrook had probably an even better suggestion: he asked whether we could have cheap licences for taxis in rural areas. If I may add to his suggestion, perhaps we might have a relief on fuel tax for the running of these rural taxis, so that people might get together and organise one for their essential shopping. If we do not get rural bus services or some form of community transport there is no question but that the countryside will die.

I have spoken for well over the time I intended but, finally, I should like to pay a tribute to certain people. First, I pay a tribute to all the voluntary services that work in the deep countryside: the Meals-on-Wheels, the social car service and many others who are such a comfort to the elderly people and who ensure, for the benefit of the social services of the local authorities, that elderly people are kept in touch and their well-being is watched. I also wish to pay a tribute to the most valuable work which is done by the district nurses. Their help to the sick and convalescent in the countryside is unbelievable and their work is most valuable. I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, to ensure that, whatever is done to cut the finances for social services, the finances for these people should not be cut. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.25 p.m.

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, I am most grateful, as I am sure are all of us here this afternoon, to the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, for initiating this debate in your Lordships' House. I have an interest in this in the sense that I live in a very sparsely populated rural part of the world and, in the terms and by the parameters used by the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, I am unbelievably rural—truly rural, I might say. The area for which I mainly have responsibility and where I stay for the best part of my time is not two miles from the nearest shop, but 16 miles; it is not two miles from the nearest bus, but 16, and not five miles from the nearest town, but 25. Having got to the nearest town, the nearest large town with a supermarket is 135 miles away by road and 150 miles away by rail, which railway has been saved only by the furious activities of that famous Scotsman, Macpuff. So I feel that not only do I have an interest but also some knowledge of the subject.

At the same time as feeling for rural areas I feel that we have to make out a case for their preservation. I do not think that is difficult to do, but it should be done because I believe that rural communities are important to all of us. They are important to the country, and there are three main reasons for this. In the first place, they provide a large proportion of our food. Farming, which by its very nature takes place in rural areas, is down to its minimum in manpower. There is no area of endeavour in this country where productivity has more successfully pruned the manpower employed. Indeed, if we are going to increase the output from the countryside I believe there will have to be an effort to get people back on to the land, because we are so much down to the bone that only by getting more people on to the land shall we, in fact, get greater total production. In my view, in agriculture we have gone as far as can be gone along the road to productivity.

The second reason why the rural areas are important to us is because they provide our population with a large part of their recreation and holiday areas. Without life going on successfully in the countryside, it would be difficult to maintain a place where one could go to enjoy a holiday or to maintain a tourist area. There is no fun in going to stay in a pub in the country if there are no locals who come in after opening time and, over a pint of beer, a pint of scrumpy—or a nip of whisky, for that matter—discuss the doings of the city folk. Therefore, it is important to the full enjoyment of these areas, even by people who live in the towns, that they be kept alive as places where people live, and enjoy themselves and raise families. It is important, in order to provide the services to the tourist industry, to provide the people to work in the hotels and to look after the caravan sites and to mend the roads, and so on, and that in general there should be a thriving rural industry going on in the countryside.

The third reason why the countryside is important to us is because it provides a way of life that gives as much, if not more, happiness and fulfilment to the people who live there as does that provided by the urban reas. These rural areas nurture fine families and they give the sort of happy background to children and young people that enables them to go out into the world and become leaders in all spheres of endeavour within our society. There is no doubt that in the area of Scotland which I know and, indeed, all over Scotland, the figures will show that the proportion of children going to university from the rural areas is very much higher than the proportion going from the urban areas. This is due in great measure to the happy, solid background which country living and small town living is able to give them. This is a very valuable ingredient in our society, and one from which all of us benefit, because of the people raised in this way and brought out into the wider world to take their place in all spheres of endeavour.

My Lords, the rural areas provide a way of life where older people, retired people, widows and widowers can find happiness and meaning in the evening of their lives. So many of these people very sensibly do not retire in the middle of a busy city, but go to the quieter places, to places where they can make more ready contact with the life going on around them. In rural communities, everybody matters. Everybody is made to feel important to the community as a whole. I know as much from people who have retired in Thurso, who have chosen to retire in this remote part because they have found an attitude of caring in the country which they did not find to the same extent in the rushing hustle and bustle of the city from which they came.

If rural communities are as good as I have been saying, what am I worried about? I am worried about preserving them, because they are threatened from two directions. In the first place they are threatened by bureaucracy. They are anathema to the centraliser, anathema to the person who wants everything done in the most economical way in the big centre. Secondly, the sheer greed of materialism threatens these rural communities. You cannot possibly be as rich in the country, doing any job you like to think of, as you can be in a town. There are just not so many people to whom to sell things, so if you want to keep a shop, do not keep the little shop on the corner in the village; go and join in with Mr. Marks and Mr. Spencer, or someone of that sort, and work in a big centre where you have hypermarkets and supermarkets. If you want to go in for trade, or industry, or anything else, you will get more money in the bigger centres, but not necessarily more satisfaction, nor will you be any more good to the country, but you will line your pocket more quickly in the big centre than in the country. The gentle caring and static nature of the way of life in the rural areas is easily scorned and belittled. They fall easy prey to their richer urban neighbours and are easily outvoted or ignored. Yet I submit they are a vital ingredient in the totality of our way of life.

Town planning, above all, does not solve our problems. I was shocked and horrified to see on television just a few days ago a description of the vandalism and graffiti affecting one of our finest pieces of town planning, the New Town of Cumbernauld. There, one would have thought, one had the best planned town that anybody could wish for, in layout, in thought, for everything that a community could need. Yet because it lacked things very often provided in a small rural community, the younger people were feeling so little fulfilment in their lives that they were prepared to desecrate this fine new town, the pride of all town planners in Scotland and, indeed, in Britain.

So we might ask ourselves what are the physical features in rural communities that are of vital importance to those communities. The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, pointed out many of these to us; and just as he did, I would say that the first important thing is transport. Human contact is what human communities are all about. If contact is lost within a community, or between one community and another, people will just drift away to somewhere else where contact with their fellow human beings can be maintained. No community should seek to be totally self-sufficient. No village, no city, not even a country, can cut itself off from the outside and survive. Therefore, threats to the branch line railways, threats to rural bus services, to rural road development programmes, are all threats to rural communities.

The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, also mentioned postal services. These are vital to rural communities. If you cannot take a bus to the nearest supermarket or department store, you have to write off for what you want, and have it sent out to you. In order to do this, you need a regular and reasonably priced postal service. So important has the postal service become to some of the more remote areas of Scotland that the Post Office—and all honour to it for the way in which it has done this—also operates the bus service in the same vehicle as it does the post round. Not the least valuable of the services rendered to a country community by the "postie" is the purveying of all local news and gossip. Any threat to the postal service must also constitute a threat to the community which it serves.

My Lords, there is one other important subject I should mention, and I know this positively from my own experience; that is, that education within the community is vital to its life. The community lives when the next generation is growing up within it. It is of paramount importance to try to keep elementary education within the community so far as possible. The policy of centralising education and of closing rural schools has already greatly damaged rural communities, especially in Scotland. Not only does it take the children out of the community in which they have been born, but it removes an important person from membership of the community; the village schoolmaster or mistress. This brings us naturally to the particular importance in rural communities of leadership. The school teacher and, like him, the clergyman, have always been important to the villages, because they are educated, trained people. They have been selected for their qualities of leadership. The decline in the power of the Church in our society and the centralisation of education have removed some natural leaders from rural areas. The centralisation and the professionalisation of local government has also removed the function of leadership from within the heart of these communities.

Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, pointed out, economic pressures have removed many of the trades and services from the heart of our villages. The village trades have gone, and we will not get them back. We will buy our shoes from the multiples, we will buy our clothes from the multiples. We will no longer have the village tailor or the village bootmaker. I accept this. But must we also lose the village shop? The village shop, the village post office and the village police station are all important and worth protecting. There are villages nowadays served by a "Bobbie", who drives up in a car from somewhere else. This is a very unsatisfactory situation. It is not good police work. A good policeman lives on his beat and knows all the people on his beat. It is a bad situation when one starts to lose the post office, the police station and the village shop.

If we are willing to subsidise the small farmer and crofter in order to keep them in being, it may very well be necessary for us to subsidise the services which make worth while the life of the small farmer and crofter. If we want the farmer to be there, we must give him the life that he wants near to his work. The village shop is most important, not only for the goods and services which it provides for the farmer but particularly as the natural meeting place of the housewives and other shoppers of the village. It is a place where human converse takes place and the life of the village takes shape. Therefore, if we mean to do anything about the diminishing services—and by this we mean all services required for happy and fulfilled living—in our villages and in our rural communities, this must be a conscious effort on the part of all of us, on the part of Government and Administration alike. We should have plans for rebuilding our rural areas, plans for conserving our rural population, and thereby for preserving one of the sources of strength in our community and in our way of life.

5.42 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in thanking my noble friend Lord de Clifford for introducing this Motion and giving us the chance to have this debate. I am not going to waste your Lordships' time by arguing that rural communities are essential, because I think that is accepted by all of us. If it had not been, the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, would have convinced anyone who did not know about things countrified. As has been said, transport which is a really important rural amenity, is under threat. Given easy transport, your communities in rural areas are happy, because they are able to communicate and get their life's blood by various means. So I make no apology because I am going to concentrate on transport.

In some areas where there is a good mixed population of all ages, some of the ill-effects, as my noble friend has said, are often mitigated by friends helping one another. This is a point which must not be underestimated. Especially where farming is profitable, most farm workers have transport and their wives usually drive. When the farmer is working, his wife has the use of a car and is able to help her neighbours who cannot drive. That is an important point which we must never overlook. But there are many areas where the population, regrettably, consists almost entirely of old folk, possibly without any transport of their own. Where, for example, do they go for honey?

It is now generally forgotten, I suspect, that the industrial troubles of the winter of 1973–74 led to the collapse of the then Government and also to the death of the Road Traffic Bill, which might, and probably would, have ameliorated the hardship of the rural transport scheme. Clauses 16 to 19 of that Bill suggested amending the existing law in a way which would have created a more flexible system of bus licensing, adapted to present-day circumstances, and designed in particular to improve transport in the rural communities. The Bill would have made it possible for lifts to be given in cars, against payment, without any risk of falling foul of bus licensing requirements. Minibuses with up to 12 seats, privately used, would have been free from these requirements. Mini-buses operating commercially would still have been subject to public service vehicle licensing—that is, to those provisions concerned with the fitness of both vehicle and operator to provide a service carrying passengers for hire or reward—but they would have been exempt from the need to have a road service licence where they neither carried passengers on journeys in urban areas or ran on an existing bus route in competition with a conventional service. That change would, I suggest, have opened way for more informal services by minibuses in country areas without conventional bus services or inadequately served by them.

I remember the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and I myself all laboured long and spent many hours discussing all the various clauses. If we had passed it and got it into law it would have widened the scope for granting permits for other kinds of journey by mini-bus, and also made the criteria for granting road service licences more flexible, placing more emphasis on the interests of the public than existing legislation did or still does. I noticed that in another place yesterday an honourable friend of mine, Mr. Luce, introduced a Bill to amend licences of public service vehicles, and he paid tribute to that 1973 Bill of ours which, as I say, we laboured on before its sad death. I would endorse that I firmly believe that a Bill dealing with this problem is urgently needed, and I hope the Bill introduced yesterday in another place will survive and enable us to give our views when it reaches your Lordships' House.

My Lords, only yesterday the Daily Telegraph highlighted a situation existing in Oxfordshire, where two operating bus companies have told the county council there that they cannot continue operating services without a £330,000 subsidy. The operating area concerned had a local population of some 5,760 people, but it was found by the working party concerned that only 75 people were actually using the service, and in those circumstances it clearly was not on for the council to consider spending money of that kind. Nevertheless, those 75 people are probably going to be put out in their ordered existence by the consequent withdrawal of these services.

My Lords, think of the many areas more rural than Oxfordshire which exist in the South-West, the North-West and the North-East of England, not to mention the distances, as the noble Viscount said, in Scotland, and also in Wales, where the population is much sparser and the area very much greater. I will not go into the problems of ferries, but of course to the Western Isles in Scotland this form of transport is life-blood, communicating one community with another—the very bread and milk of life indeed.

The Post Office has, so far as I know, since 1968 been experimenting with the carriage of passengers as well as of mail. I trust that Lord de Clifford's suggestion that it is not going on now is incorrect, and I look forward to hearing from the noble Baroness that it is not only going well but possibly going to be expanded. It is perhaps in the better utilisation of existing buses that we can hope to see real, quick improvement. There is no question of ample vehicles not being available. The key to improvement in the short term may well prove to lie in better integration of the school bus services with other services. School contracts, perhaps, should only be granted and, being profitable, eveyone wants them—where operators are willing to combine them with a public service. Even if a small subsidy was needed to implement this it would still be less than that needed to maintain a public service on its own.

My Lords, this is a short debate and I must not be selfish with time. I think none of us has more than 12 minutes, if the noble Baroness is to have time to reply. I should like to summarise briefly some conclusions on this subject, and again I make no apology for concentrating entirely on the transport side, because it is this which is the whole key to local communities' convenience. There should be greater use of all vehicles, particularly in the field of school transport: this, of course, may necessitate review of existing seating rules. Where school children use buses they can be put three to a seat; obviously if you were going to have a passenger service you would have to change this. There probably could be, I would say almost certainly could be, better co-ordination at county level on this, and possibly some action might be taken on the Thatcher Working Party recommendations. Better that this Government should do it than see it implemented later. Flexibility of licensing I have already emphasised. I would also suggest that there could be a more selective use of subsidies, perhaps using them to encourage the rearrangement of the existing services and new operators coming into the field. One thing above all is that we must all fight hard to preserve as many amenities as are practically possible in our rural areas.

There is a point I should like to make, and that is that often the lower key services make up for lack of quantity by greater personal enthusiasm and willingness to do more than the minimum required. I, too, should like to pay tribute, like my noble friend, to the excellence of the services that are provided both in the voluntary field and in the local council services. I have been lucky living in Yorkshire and in Scotland to find the services quite excellent, and the willingness of the men operating them of a very high standard. I have always been most impressed, and always realised that I must he particularly lucky when I hear some of the sad tales of people having to lug their bins three-quarters of a mile to be picked up. I must confess that in Angus and Yorkshire I have not had that experience in the rural areas, nor have the people around me. Before I sit down, may I say that I hope that the noble Baroness the Minister will be able to give us some form of reassurance that the diminishing trend will be stopped and, hopefully, reversed.

5.52 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we are all most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, for introducing this debate. It is topical and so far has been very interesting. I should like to add to those credits which have been paid to social workers and other people, but we should not forget the staff of the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the staff of the Department of Health and Social Security, who sometimes have to travel many miles in the countryside in order to visit claimants and find out about their circumstances. They deserve great credit too.

A great deal has been said about the problems which exist in the countryside. I want to deal with just two major items, transport and communications, but particularly to call special attention to the position of the agricultural workers and also to those others on low incomes, the pensioners, the disabled, and the mothers who have to do the shopping and get into the villages. It is very difficult now to do the shopping for the family. I also want to mention the problem of children getting to school.

Agricultural workers are traditionallyȔand I think that everybody accepts thisȔvery low paid. If I may venture to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, I cannot accept that agricultural workers have cars. Some do. Thank goodness more are now able to afford them! However, if you recognise that the minimum wage in agriculture is still only £36.50 a week and that a large number of agricultural workers are on the minimum wage, it is quite clear that they cannot afford cars. It goes without saying that the lower your income in an area where services have been reduced the more you suffer because you need the money, for example, to have a telephone in the house for communication purposes. If you want to get into a biggish town in order to go to the opera or hear some music, or even to go to the cinema, it costs a great deal of money these days, and if you have not got that money you are deprived of these things, whereas if you have the money and can spend it on these things you are not so badly handicapped.

Again the reduction in services has been applied more rigorously in rural areas where the population is low, as has been mentioned by the noble Viscount, than in the urban areas, the conurbations, where the population is clearly very much greater. I suppose that is natural, but the consequences of that are there. There is no doubt that in recent years there has been a marked deterioration in the services enjoyed by those living in rural and often in remote districts. Because of the nature of the job agricultural workers and their families are even more remote. They are living away from even the village; they live on farms which are often isolated, and sometimes where access is difficult.

I should like to deal specifically with the problems of transport and communication. So far as transport is concerned the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers has for many years called attention to the transport problem in rural areas. I received a letter on this subject as late as this morning. With the permission of your Lordships I shall quote a paragraph or two from that letter. It says: For many years the Union has pressed for improvement in the rural bus services, and as a result in part of our representations the Jack Committee of 1961 proposed that a very modest subsidy should be introduced. As you will recall this was not implemented until the Transport Act 1968 (Section 34) which gave local authorities enabling powers to subsidise the rural bus services on a 50–50 basis with central Government. Only relatively few local authorities took advantage of this measure, and our policy subsequent to 1968 has been to press the Government to make it mandatory on local authorities to take some action in the matter. In fact, as from April 1974 under a measure introduced by the last Tory Government, new arrangements were brought in through the introduction of a single Transport Supplementary Grant specifically for local transport. The union—I am still reading the letter— protested about this new arrangement to the Ministry of Transport because under it there is no obligation on the part of local authorities to allocate any particular proportion to the rural bus services. Incidentally, in a letter to us dated 8th April of last year, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State…pointed out that 93 per cent. of the £102 million revenue"— allocated to this purpose— was going to the major conurbations in 1975–76. It is true that under the Local Government Act 1972 a positive duty is put on the County Councils to develop policies designed at ensuring the provision of an efficient passenger public transport service to meet the needs of their area. The fact is that the Government have not been able to help us at all in this connection, and the position is continuing to worsen irrespective of the many representations we have made on the matter. So concerned were the union's executive that in 1974—and I assume that I suspect correctly that the situation has worsened since then—they circularised their district committees asking for information about the situation in their areas. All the replies referred to the deterioration in the services which had taken place, going right back to Beeching.

At that time I was a member of the Central Transport Consultative Committee, and I remember very well that while the members of that committee recognised the need to streamline the railway service we got an assurance from the railway authorities that if the services were to be removed and it affected more than a very few people a bus service would be provided instead. You do not need to guess what has happened to that assurance these days. Additionally many replies from our districts cited individual cases. They gave us examples of the acute hardship imposed on individual people they knew about. I have a whole sheaf of them. I am going to mention only two. In Lincolnshire, said the Report, there was …a very serious deterioration in the services around Louth and Grimsby…a woman from Donington on Bain having to walk six miles to the nearest bus stop to get into town for prescriptions and special foods for her diabetic husband "— and, of course, for ordinary shopping. Then there was the case, mentioned in the Report, in Cheshire where the parishes of Siddington, Marton and Withington, with a total population of 700 people, are required, if they have no transport, to walk four to five miles to the nearest bus route. A few years ago there were three buses daily each way but now there is one bus each way, on a Friday only". There is, then, the problem of school children, and here again a number of union county committees have written to the general secretary of the union protesting about the proposed new arrangements. As I understand it, the proposition is that whereas at present children under eight get free transport if they travel two or more miles to school and children over eight get this provision if they travel three or more miles to school, the basic idea now is for each local authority to introduce a flat rate charge irrespective of distance. Local authorities will then have discretionary powers to remit or reduce the charge where hardship can be established or if a child is handicapped.

The statutory walking distances after which free transport is provided is already, in my view and that of the union, too great. Our view is that the proposed distances should be reduced by one mile in each case; that is, for children under and over eight. We recognise that local authorities will have these discretionary powers to remit or reduce the charge where hardship can be established, but this will, in effect, represent the introduction of another means test. Your Lordships will be aware that, as in the case of school milk, this could lead to unthinking people—and of course children can, perhaps not deliberately, be very unkind—stigmatising children whose parents apply for remission.

I wish to deal briefly with the question of communications. The problem here is simply that people who are isolated need to make contact. The number of telephones in villages is being reduced and under new criteria being established there must be a revenue of £800 for a public telephone to exist. We have pointed out that difficulties will arise over this and we have said that a kiosk should be provided if a revenue of £200 can be established. We have pointed out that the postal authorities have power to establish kiosks where urgent need can be shown. Not enough notice is taken of the problems of rural people, My Lords, I have not considered this a political or Party debate. I have tried to put before your Lordships some of the facts as they are known to the people who should know about them—the Agricultural Workers' Union—and I thank noble Lords for listening to me.

6.4 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of DERBY

My Lords, I join with others in expressing gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, for proposing this Motion, and I have learned a great deal from what he and others have said. When I heard that Lord de Clifford intended to introduce this subject I began making inquiries to fill out the details of the general impressions that I had of the situation. I wrote to 12 clergymen in the diocese of Derby asking a number of questions, and all of them in different ways have given me precisely the same impression of the situation. I began with the consideration of transport and communications, but this led me on to wider concerns.

Often the country generally conceals this problem from itself by saying that nowadays so many people have cars. However, cars are an answer in the country only if the family owns at least two because, as likely as not, if there is only one, that has to take the man of the house to work, the wife being left to her own devices at home and she is restricted in all sorts of ways. If she wishes to work, this may be difficult and it is hard for her to share in life with others outside the local community. The car is also not available for the children and other young members of the family. In a parish which is intensively farmed there may be no recreation ground where children can play. In one instance of which I know, the nearest recreation ground is five miles away. In some of our towns we are erecting new swimming baths and sports centres, but children and young people can get to them only with difficulty until they are able to use transport of their own. Children are taken to school and brought home by bus, but they are unable to take part in out-of-school activities except in the middle of the day. And in their village communities, if indeed they live in a village, there are very few children of their own age with whom they can play and share interests. In a very true sense, children and young people in the country are being socially deprived in a variety of ways. This is an important part of the whole problem and it is due largely to the lack of suitable transport.

As we have heard, small shops are closing down and people must travel further for essential goods. The provision of these is tending to be confined to fewer and fewer key villages. Then there is the reduction in other services. Often today it is necessary to travel much further to hospital or to register a birth or death or to go to a coroner's inquest. Near to where I live a small maternity hospital is being closed. This is no doubt called for on medical and nursing grounds, but the hardship imposed on those who have to go to the hospital, either for treatment or visiting, will be very severe.

I had no intention of mentioning the particular problems of the Church, but Lord de Clifford mentioned pastoral reorganisation. We hone that even where there are groupings of parishes clergymen will visit faithfully, but there are occasions when people living in the parishes need to go and see them; and if there is no car available or no kind friend to take them, this again may be difficult. As a result of all this, village communities are becoming unbalanced; people are there in their needs—the old, the disabled, the mentally handicapped—but they are unable to go to the nearest town to take part in the day care facilities on which so much public money has been spent. Thus, we are left with the elderly, the retired and the week-enders—too many seeking such domestic help as there is or drawing on the services of such few workmen as there are.

Then there are the problems over housing. Young people leave the villages when they grow up, or at any rate when they get married, and their families also move nearer their work. They can never return; their houses are sold for large sums of money to retired people, to commuters or to holiday-makers. Village people have no necessary priority over council houses and sometimes, I am told, housing committees use villages for housing awkward people, thus taking away some of the provision for people who could give to villages a true continuing life. We need a new policy which will enable villagers to return to their native locality and will allow the young people to stay.

As for cars, the cost of running them is becoming greater and greater and is producing, at least for some families, poverty of a new kind. The car is essential to their life, but other things which they ought to have have to go. Such transport as there is at the moment is entirely insufficient. There is no bus except on market days and, if one goes, one must stay for the whole day. That is costly for everyone because meals have to be bought and there is a temptation to buy other things. It is also very tiring for the elderly. Buses often do not connect in a way which would make hospital visiting, attendance at the doctor's surgery or the collection of prescriptions or pensions possible. Fares, as they rise higher and higher, are a desperate problem. Wages are lower in the country and yet, because of the cost of travel, the cost of living is higher. The buses are carrying even smaller numbers of passengers and so the service is becoming less viable.

We have heard of a good deal that is being done voluntarily and through the provision of services, and I should like simply to underline that. This is a way in which the Church has suffered in that, as a result of some of the regulations about the driving of mini or larger buses, there are limitations on licensing which make it difficult to use these means to drive people to church. However, it is not only church-going which is affected in this way. People in different village communities who want to share their activities are also affected.

The following are a few additional points. I should like to request adequate cheap or free car parking in market towns to reduce some of the very heavy costs. In addition, while it is almost impossibly difficult to make exceptions, perhaps there might be cheaper petrol or lower car taxation for those who live in the country and who must of necessity depend on cars. Also, of course, people who are dependent on the parcel service to obtain goods need a service for which they can pay. Here again, the situation is becoming more and more difficult.

As has been suggested, we need some co-ordination in the field of transport. For instance, if I may bring in a main line railway, the main rail artery connecting the North-West of Derbyshire with the South-East was cut in the middle. Just a few miles were taken away and what might have been a means of communication through the assistance of buses is no longer available, so that, if one wants to go from one extreme of the county to the other, one probably has to travel through Sheffield or even Manchester as well. That is simply one example of a lack of co-ordination in the cutting of services and the provision of others.

What I should like chiefly to stress is that we have a whole body of problems which are related. The situation has been allowed to worsen piecemeal and it needs a different kind of treatment if it is to be mended. Someone has said that at the present time villages are in a make or break situation. The future of farming is at stake if the farm staff is stranded in villages with almost no services or facilities, and there is general deprivation. What we need is some planning to help to create and keep mixed communities where people can share the kind of wholeness of life which they did in the past. But what we are presented with is the question of the kind of countryside and the kind of social communities we want to have. There is a very wide range of social need which shouts aloud for consideration and action, and I hope that this debate will do something to bring that range of need to the attention of the members of Her Majesty's Government and the country at large.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, have lived in a village all my life and can claim to be familiar with the problems which we are discussing this evening. I should like to say how interested I was in the speech of the right reverend Prelate, which covered so many points. Not least was I interested in what he said about councils on occasion using villages as areas where an awkward tenant could be re-housed, for we have heard it said that certain Bishops have gained the reputation of doing the same with an awkward incumbent—that is, finding him a parish as remote as possible from the county town.

I make no apology for talking about rural transport and repeating what I have probably said more than once in earlier debates. This is a subject—and I hope that the Ministers on the Front Bench are listening—where Back-Benchers have to employ a tactic comparable to allowing water to drop on a stone. We have been doing it for years and perhaps some of us will live to see some substantial result; at least, I hope so.

After the war, transport in the rural areas of this country seemed to be generally good. In addition to the larger companies, some of the smaller bus companies were working well and we still had a network of rural railway services. However, we have been living through years when the tendency has been to form larger units and when the smaller country bus proprietors have, one by one, dropped out. The larger bus companies have never seemed to be particularly sympathetic to the needs of small communities, nor to be at all interested in co-operating with the small men whose giving up has been such a great loss to the countryside.

When speaking of this deterioration, my argument will be that it need not have been as steep and as sharp as it has proved, if only the larger bus companies and the local authorities—and, indeed, all concerned—had been readier to co-operate. It is remarkable, if one looks at the services in any district, to see how little effort has been made to link bus services together. In the town near were I live, there is a bus station which is three-quarters of a mile from the railway station. Some buses go to one and some to the other. There is no link between the two and if a passenger arrives from the South or North by the long distance express bus—which is not at all uncomfortable—he would be dropped, suitcase and all, in the main street of the town, halfway between the two stations. If he wanted to continue by train or by local bus service, he would have to carry his luggage quite a long way. How much more comfortable and practical travel would be if there were some co-ordination between these different local services.

I believe I am right in saying that the Transport Users' Consultative Committees, which are normally believed to be wholly concerned with the railways, may also be concerned, though to a lesser extent, with the co-ordination of all transport. I believe also that county councils have some duties in this field. I wish both those bodies would apply their minds not just to improving services but also to linking those which we now have.

Other fields of co-operation have already been mentioned. There are the school buses. I cannot see why they should not always be prepared to carry additional passengers, even if the number has sometimes to be limited. All too often, one sees buses carrying school children but with a number of empty scats and they set off at just about the time when people are leaving their work and want transport.

Further, there is the experiment of the postal buses. I was closely associated with the start of one such bus in the Lake District. It must have been the first or second of its type in this country. To the best of my knowledge it has proved to be a success, but I have not been able to understand why the Post Office have never advertised it widely. It seems very strange. I should have thought that it would be well advertised, and that the Post Office would claim to be a pioneer and was doing something which others were unable to do, to help people. Yet in the Northern part of the Lake District you rarely find timetables or notices about this service on hotel notice boards. I recall the last occasion I looked for such a notice in the main post office in Penrith. I drew attention to the fact that there was no notice displayed. A member of the Post Office staff went into the back, and returned saying that they were sorry, they could not put up a notice because they were out of print.

I wish to end on a lighter, happier note. Only the other day I discovered an example of what can be done by enterprise and with some co-operation. A small bus service is now operating in the Lake District, with the picturesque, gorgeous name of the "Mountain Goat". It was founded four years ago by a man of great enterprise, who now has nine small buses and three large ones. He had to battle his way to get the licences to start the service, even on the shortest stretches. Perhaps he was lucky, because when the Ribble bus company pulled out of the route over the Kirkstone Pass he took it on, and he has made a success of it with his mini buses.

Noble Lords will be interested to hear that now the National Bus Company, through Ribble, the local company, which had not held out the hand of co-operation very warmly to this enterprising man and his company, is now co-operating with him, to provide next year services from Windermere to Manchester Airport, and from Windermere to Hull. I cite that in detail merely to show that where people of good will get down and plan together something better can be done than what we have seen in most districts and heard about this evening. My Lords, I was determined not to sneak for long, less even than for the seven minutes for which I have spoken, and so I shall say no more. I commend my few words to the noble Baroness and I urge her to press forward with co-operation between the different people concerned in this field whenever she sees the chance of achieving some success.

6.22 p.m.


My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as Chairman of Her Majesty's Development Commissioners who have a wide set of duties in helping the rural areas, at present mainly by building advance factories, setting up an advisory service to small industries, and subsidising and helping the rural community councils. In accordance with tradition, I will not speak about the precise details of a public board with which I am associated. But it is worth pointing out, and it is some compliment to Her Majesty's Government, that we, as a Commission, are not suffering a cut in expenditure this year. In fact we are being expanded. I hope that this is same comfort to those who have raised this debate today, bearing in mind that we are talking about the problems of rural areas. Our budget is going up quite substantially in order to help us do our best for the rural areas.

It was inevitable that much of the debate should be about transport, and I can speak freely about this because it is not the concern of the Development Commission. I hope that we shall realise that the day of the public bus service in the deep rural areas is drawing to an end. Figures were quoted by the noble Lord from the Front Bench opposite about the fact that in Oxfordshire it has been necessary to collapse a service which was costing £300,000 in subsidy to carry 75 people. One realises that this kind of thing cannot go on much longer. Had the noble Lord read the remainder of the article in yesterday's Daily Telegraph he would have seen that in Essex, for example, villages are to be cut off because it is no longer possible to provide £600,000 subsidy, and in Berkshire it is said that they simply cannot afford £1,000,000 to subsidise buses in the rural areas.

We must face the fact that this type of traditional bus service is coming to an end. Subsidies on this scale are no longer possible. That is why I should like to welcome the experiment announced by the Minister of Transport. He has said that in three or four special areas the Government will set up a scheme for experiments, and this will be run through a national steering committee with a local committee doing the work on the ground. I suppose that it will involve running mini-buses and operating voluntary service buses and so on; all the things we have heard about from time to time in the rural areas.

I say to my noble friend who is to reply that it is time to press for details of the scheme. When is this scheme to start? In what areas will it run? Will it, for example, be run in the really tough areas, such as Northumberland which has terrible problems relating to remoteness? Can we be given a date at which this scheme will start? The Minister said that a short Bill might be needed to relax some of the licensing laws. When is that Bill to see the light of day? Could we not start that Bill in this House if that would speed up the coming into operation of the scheme?

Merely talking about all this must come to an end, at least to some extent. As we face the demise of the conventional bus service we should be building up, more deliberately and more enthusiastically, a system involving mini-buses, post buses, local authority schemes and other projects which include relaxation of the licensing laws. Such action makes all the difference to rural areas.

This leads me to say that we should all try to tell people in rural areas what the National Council of Social Service is already doing about the problem. I point this out to the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, who was good enough to introduce this debate. I have here two documents published by the National Council of Social Service, concerned with how various areas are running voluntary services of all kinds, and showing what examples are being set. There is enormous variation. I should love to read out the list, and there is a reference to what is happening in the noble Lord's own county of Herefordshire. It is very inspiring. What is needed is to spread the example of the good to the less good in the various counties, in the way of voluntary effort, dial-a-bus schemes, minibuses, buses run by youth clubs, post buses, and many other means of transport.

It is interesting to note that the conventional bus is not always excluded from the type of schemes I have mentioned. In Norfolk, for example, volunteers, trained by the National Bus Company, are driving buses. They are driving the buses in the rural areas and saving money. The scheme is being subsidised by the county council. What a good example that is to set. That is the type of imaginative approach we need. I ask my noble friend: please can we proceed a little faster before some of these areas die? If she can give a promise on this it would be the best news she could give us. Furthermore, will my noble friend make absolutely sure that when the Minister's own scheme is brought into operation the rural community councils are associated with it. This is the scheme involving the steering committee and the local committees, in the four areas which the Minister appears to be choosing. The rural community council ought to be on the working group in each area, helping to run and organise the service. They are doing so much to stimulate voluntary effort in this matter that it would be quite wrong to exclude them from the voluntary bodies which are to run these experiments.

I turn now from transport to the deeper issue, which was raised, in particular, by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, who talked about the need to revive rural areas. I suggest very strongly that what we should now think about is not patching up the problems of the rural areas but, more positively, starting their revival. This is the job, if I may say so, that we have in the Development Commission. In other words, no longer have we to say, "How can we get over that difficulty, solve that minor problem, ease that irritation?", and so on. We now have to say, "How are we going positively to regenerate some of the deeper rural areas?", which hold something like 2,500,000-plus of our population. This frankly boils down, as we have discovered, to making an imaginative approach: to creating jobs, to making sure that there is the housing and to making sure that amenities follow and that, in the end, we make the place attractive enough to ensure that young people stay.

This is not as hopeless a task as some noble Lords have hinted. What has happened is that in the last 12 or 18 months we have been able to stimulate action plans for rural revival covering all the really deep disadvantaged rural counties in this country. If I may say so to noble Lords, the pile of action plans on my desk is now over a foot high. They have been carefully thought out in terms of, first, injecting small-scale industry into their areas. That is something which was commended by Lord Sandford's Report on the National Parks as being necessary to keep an indigenous population in the National Parks, but, of course, it applies much more widely than the National Parks. So, first, there are these action plans. Then we asked that they be linked to an on-going housing programme in key growth areas, key villages, key towns, key settlements. We cannot prop up every village, but we can hold the population which would otherwise leave the rural areas in key settlements that counties and districts choose for themselves in their structure planning process. Then we are looking ahead, over periods of five and ten years, to the addition of amenities and to the building of offices in small rural towns—in effect, all the things that create a variety of opportunity for young people and encourage them to stay in the rural areas.

My Lords, this is a most hopeful thing. I do not think we should be as gloomy as some noble Lords have been today. All the evidence I have is that we are poised for a remarkable regeneration of many of our rural areas, which are being stimulated into saying, "How can we act to save ourselves, given a little Government help?"—help by way of building advance factories; by helping them, perhaps with the Housing Corporation, to add to their housing programme; by coming in with some offices, and perhaps later adding amenities such as community centres and things of that kind. Indeed, I am inspired by the way in which many rural counties are today facing their problems, determined to overcome them in the years ahead. If noble Lords want an example of this, I suggest they go and look at, say, the small town of Berwick, where this has happened after a very small injection of Government money in job provision. The whole town has lifted itself up. It has revived itself, cleaned itself up, built more houses, made more jobs; and it is now a thriving community. Welshpool, in the middle of Wales, is another example.

In other words, once communities begin to plan with enterprise, with enthusiasm and with confidence in their future, and given a little Government help from the Development Commission, it is absolutely remarkable what can be stimulated. If I may say so to noble Lords, this is the way ahead as we now see it. We must not, I suggest, be too gloomy. The expenditure of a few million pounds per annum—and it is a very few million pounds—is bringing about the start of a quite remarkable rural revival in this country. I am hoping that, given fair winds over the coming years, we shall be able to show extraordinary results, which will please noble Lords who have been fighting on this issue for many years.

6.34 p.m.

Viscount LONG

My Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord de Clifford on introducing this debate this evening. I should like to thank him for what he said in his speech, taking us along the minor roads, round the rural areas, down the lanes and through the gates. At one moment, as my eyes closed, I felt that we were all there, with green gumboots on, wading through the mud. I should also like to thank him for what he said at the end of his speech concerning such associations as the Royal British Legion, the Women's Institute, the Meals-on-Wheels, all of whom play a most active part in our rural community life. It is vitally important that they be mentioned tonight. I ought to declare an interest because, my Lords, I live in the middle of Wiltshire, in a very rural area, and at the rate public transport from village to local town is being withdrawn at the moment—during these last two or three years, anyway—we poor souls who live in the rural areas might disappear, to be discovered some 200 years hence. So this debate must in itself draw attention to the plight of those in our rural areas who feel themselves becoming more and more isolated.

I noticed from my local papers some weeks ago that a local council had already begun an investigation into the hardships of the pensioners and the young people, and I quote what was said at a meeting of the Wiltshire Association for Local Councils: People in villages, and particularly pensioners, who used to go into town two or three times a week, just cannot afford more than once a week now. In many ways we are going back to before the war, when I remember many of our locals going into town by pony and trap on market day.

I have noticed that in this debate very few of your Lordships have mentioned the cost of running public transport or the way in which the public use their transport services. I should therefore like to refer to those two points. Looking at the problems of transport—and they are becoming increasingly difficult day by day in these inflationary times—the first thing that comes to my mind is the cost of the vehicle, the cost of a 56-seater bus or the cost of a local train, and the cost of running that bus or train, the staff wages, the maintenance and so on. When I first drafted my speech I felt it would be a good idea to put the cost down on paper, but I could go on for ever with that and bore your Lordships. It must surely be a tremendous nightmare for any transport administrative staff to make ends meet during these inflationary times.

Having made that point, my Lords, I now look at the members of the public who use these services. Since the war, more and more of the public have been able to buy their own cars, and whenever I go into a town I notice that the first thing a factory has to build for itself is an enormous car park. The next thing I notice is that there is only one person to a car, which means that less and less people are using the public services. Therefore, can one wonder that the odd bus is being withdrawn from service? Yet the public demand that these services should continue regardless. I can quote an incident which occurred some three or four years ago when I was walking through my village. I am extremely lucky because, unlike some, I have a public transport service, though it is diminishing. Gradually they are taking more buses off.

As I went down through the village I was approached by a group of people with a petition. I was asked if I would sign this petition because they wanted a certain bus to be withdrawn. The bus service found that this bus was not making a profit. I looked up at that moment to see the bus coming in. Standing at the stop were six elderly ladies, one of whom was my old nanny. They got on to the empty bus, a 56-seater. Off the bus went and after a further five stops, about four and a half miles, it arrived at the local town with two or three more on board. The people who asked me to sign the petition had never ever used public transport; never were likely to use public transport and in any case had not a clue about how many people use public transport. I asked them to withdraw the petition from my eyes and to leave it well alone. However, the result was that that bus was withdrawn. The old ladies still continued to need it. An hour later there was still a bus. The public were not using that bus. The people on that list who were petitioning were not using that bus. No matter how good the service and how cheap the cost, they were not likely to use it. It is like the old story that you can take a horse to water but cannot make it drink.

The fact remains that we are experiencing a complete run-down of our transport system. The people who I believe—and I have heard it mentioned during the debate this afternoon—are going to be the sufferers in the long run (and are suffering now) are the old-age pensioners who can no longer drive a car and who through different ailments would not be allowed to drive a car, and the very young who have just left school who also would not be allowed to drive a car either because they have not taken the test or, if they have, because they cannot afford a car. Taking the case of the old pensioners, earlier I mentioned the association but mentioned that they would afford to be able to go into town only once a week. But we have also listened to speeches regarding the hope that the associations within the community will lend themselves and their cars to helping those old-age pensioners to go to the local market town to do their shopping more than once a week.

As to the younger generation they are not going to tolerate for long living in villages. I have a young daughter, aged 17. Her last bus back on Saturday night is at 9 o'clock. I do not feel like going out to collect her at 11 o'clock when she has gone to a disco, so I have a complaint. It is that if I go out I cannot go to the local disco. The young definitely suffer and are getting very irate—and the sooner they take their test the better!

My Lords, where are we now? I think we have heard a very good speech from the noble Lord, Lord Northfield. He mentioned the money that is to be spent on transport and new ideas in local towns. It sounded very lovely to me, but we are going through a difficult economic situation at the moment and I do not want that news to "leak" from this House, because the councils are winding down their finances. Obviously, on a long-term basis, we must try to find the money to improve the situation.


My Lords, the noble Viscount misunderstood me. I should not like to say that a lot of money is going to be spent on a lot of things; but that it is to be spent on job creation which is a key issue for the coming years and the proper one on which to expand spending.

Viscount LONG

My Lords, I agree that I probably misinterpreted the noble Lord. Nevertheless, we are looking at money which is not going to come forward too quickly at the moment or in the next four or five years. But I should like to congratulate him because of his imagination and the work he has put into this. I would say it is a good idea. I hope that with his association, and Government support, we shall see progress long this line. I apologise if I misinterpreted him.

My feeling is that, where the national bus companies can no longer carry on their routes economically, it is time that licences were granted to the smaller companies, the smaller people. I have experience of this. Some six miles away from me a small family has run a very good bus route every day and there has been no trouble with the interlocking of the National bus company. I think that could go on from village to village and area to area. I think that private enterprise must be given this boost.

There is a lot of talk of safety. I am not sure if the noble Baroness is going to bring it into one of the transport licensing grants or the commissioners' review of licensing, but I should be grateful if she would describe this word "safety". Is it safety from the driver's angle for from the machinery or the vehicle itself? I wonder what the word "safety" means when it is applied to licences.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, it is both.

Viscount LONG

I thank the noble Baroness for the immediate answer, my Lords. I think this has been a great debate introduced by my noble friend. I hope the Government can give us some idea that they are thinking about us rather rural, old-fashioned people who find it difficult to get transport. We need an urgent review on the subject and I congratulate my noble friend on his debate this afternoon.

6.48 p.m.


My Lords, there are considerable fears in the West Highlands that the Glasgow-Fort William Railway is to be closed within the foreseeable future, say five years or less. May I ask the noble Baroness if this is likely? I raised this point after the Unstarred Question by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, the day before yesterday, but the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, was somewhat surprised by the question and did not have an answer at that time. Due to the uproar of Scottish nationalism racing through Scotland, many vital matters of everyday needs of existence have tended to be overlooked or ignored. The Highlands are still part of the United Kingdom, I am glad to say, and would like to be heard to its advantage, especially with regard to their lifelines.

Unlike the countryside of England, we in the West Highlands are not necessarily blessed with masses of criss-crossing highways and transport routes of rail and air. To reach a centre point like Fort William is a matter of road or single-track railway into the mountains. Both offer a rather low-grade service for modern needs. Some time ago I raised with Sir Richard Marsh the subject of the poor service that the farmers in the West Highlands, the hill farmers, had in the matter of moving cattle and sheep to lowland markets. I seem to remember that he regarded this as a matter of spasmodic loads and therefore unprofitable and thus not worth retaining. Such is the case now. We no longer have cattle and sheep trains, but have to reply on a handful of lorries, which are inevitably not necessarily available when we want them. I should add that my parish alone is over 500 square miles in itself.

That situation is not very good even in these troubled times. I should have thought an ailing business would try to attract every type of spasmodic income as well as its regular incomes for its own benefit and improvement, if not ours. By no stretch of the imagination can the rolling stock travelling from Glasgow to Fort William or Fort William to Glasgow be regarded as express, so would it not be better if the trains were made up of a combination of passenger cars, freight cars and cattle trucks? After all, British Rail is presumably in business to make a profit and not impress the watching public with only a nice neat string of passenger carriages. As the trains seem to halt at every station and whistle stop along the route, it would not be difficult to uncouple specific waggons at any one point for further distribution elsewhere. But, in the meantime, we are dependent upon lorries and they are subjected to B-rated, snaking, hill country roads and adverse weather conditions. My Lords, if we lose both forms of egress then we are trapped.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I give support to his suggestion? I hope the Glasgow-Fort William line is not going to be closed. The noble Baroness must remember that in the Highlands in winter the roads can be completely impassable for motor traffic. I cannot agree with my noble friend that there should be passenger freight trains, for, in that case, there would be very few passengers. The noble Baroness will know that the timber for the pulp mill at Fort William is gathered every day for the nightly train at Crianlarich. If that line was closed, I do not see how the timber could get to Fort William in winter. A great number of lorries would be required and in the winter the roads are often impassable, whereas this does not affect the railway which is a diesel line. I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me interrupting, but I wanted to make that point.

6.53 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, this has certainly been a wide ranging debate, although we seem to have come back at almost every point to transport. I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, for having given us the opportunity of airing our views in a way that they have been aired this afternoon. We all accept as undeniable that some of the services in the rural areas are diminishing and that many people are experiencing hardship and difficulties as a result. Indeed, most of the noble Lords who have spoken have given examples, many of them eloquently and movingly. But there is nothing new in this, it applies equally to private as to public services, the situation varies considerably from area to area and from service to service, and often there is little that Government can do to help; but that does not mean that the Government are unmindful of the problems.

We have to remember that years ago that villages and hamlets were formerly fairly self-contained. The majority of their inhabitants obtained their essential requirements, their living and social life within the confines of their own village and hamlet. They were satisfied with an occasional visit to the nearby market town. Then we had improvements in communications and transport—first the railways and then the motor car. Following that came a widespread decline in the marketing function of towns and villages. Rural settlements were no longer self-sufficient—shops and tradesmen (saddlers, shoe-repairers and blacksmiths, et cetera) have largely disappeared from many villages, and many country towns have lost their marketing and service functions because people seem to prefer to travel to the larger towns and cities where they have a wider choice of goods and services.

These trends towards centralisation are to be found in all sectors of the national and local economies. In the public sector many education, health and welfare services are increasingly provided from urban centres, where the larger population enables a wider range of facilities to be available. This tendency has been reinforced by the recent local government reform which has produced even larger and more remote areas and has combined rural with urban areas so that it is more administratively convenient for the authorities to provide services from a central point in the urban areas. Therefore we must recognise that there are real difficulties in providing services for people in rural areas, and the costs of doing so for a widely dispersed population are inevitably higher than if we provide services in a closely-knit, built up area. It may be necessary to accept centralising of services in the larger settlements if we are to provide efficiently the specialist services and facilities from which we all want rural people to benefit as well as those in urban areas. But I am well aware that improved facilities are of no benefit to the rural population without the means of getting to them. Therefore, it is of vital importance that transport should be available to people in rural areas, and the present problems—about which the Government in general and my Department in particular are very con cerned—are the result of decline in rural bus services. We announced in December that we were having the special project which was to look at the problems in the rural areas. Indeed, in his excellent and imaginative speech, my noble friend Lord Northfield referred to this and steps are being taken now in providing these experimental transport schemes. There are consultations going on with the interested parties. The only thing which has been confirmed is that there is little agreement about the extent to which alterations to the present licensing code would offer rural communities a real assurance of any improvement in their transport provision. The Department feel that what is needed is a careful assessment of what can be done to relieve the transport problems.

The experimental projects that my right honourable friend is promoting are to be in three or four selected areas in England, Scotland and Wales, where there are really serious rural transport problems. I am not in a position at this time to say exactly where they will be. The design of the projects and the form they will undertake will b the responsibility of Working Groups which will be under the chairmanship of officials from the appropriate Departments. They will include representatives from the local authorities, the bus operators, the trade unions and other bodies concerned. I will remind my right honourable friend of the need to include the voluntary organisations, the community service people, the WRVS and all these other bodies carrying the burden of providing services in the rural areas for us today. They will act under the general guidance of a Steering Committee.

These bodies were invited in January to nominate representatives to serve on the Steering Committee and the experiment areas will be selected through the machinery of this Steering Committee. Noble Lords will appreciate that when one starts talking about experimental transport schemes of one sort or another which may involve using voluntary labour, then we have to tread very carefully in so far as the unions are concerned, and we are anxious to have the widest possible consultations with them, so that we can allay any fears they may have that any extension of these experimental schemes, might result in loss of jobs for their members.

We have also taken steps on the question of the special bus services and the postal buses, which were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. I had made a note before he spoke to refer to the "Mountain Goat". I am familiar with the activities of the "Mountain Goat"; I remember it starting as one bus and I know what a tremendous success it is now. I wish I had put some money in it when it first started! I was surprised to know that the post bus in the Lake District is not advertised. This is something we might take up with the appropriate Department. I have used the post bus in the Ullswater area and I can assure noble Lords who were concerned that post buses are operating; there are now over 20 such services operating in England and over 50 services operating in Scotland.

In many areas these services have resulted in tremendous social benefits, and the availability of the new bus grant and fuel tax rebate has meant that the Post Office has been able to reduce the cost of remote deliveries.

Reference was made by one noble Lord to the delivery of letters and the reduction in services there, as well as to the fact that if we drop the second service it will not make any difference, because they have not had it anyway. As a matter of interest, I can tell him that it can cost up to 18p to deliver a letter to one of the more remote rural addresses, whether we have one delivery or two. The question of the Sunday service being withdrawn will also be reviewed after one year, and I hope that those areas which feel they have lost something over this will make their voices heard then.


My Lords, are we to understand that at the present time there are either Saturday or Sunday collections? Where there is no Saturday collection, and the Sunday collection is removed, will the Saturday collection be reinstated?—because it would be intolerable if there were two days without a collection.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, my recollection is that it is only one day; but I am not absolutely certain and I will check on it and write to the noble Lord. On the question of the other forms of transport that might be used, school buses have been looked at and they are provided under contract by public transport operators. They are able to take fare-paying passengers, but again there are problems. School buses are always wanted at the peak hours. They are wanted in the morning and in the afternoon when there is a shortage of buses. When they are able to take fare-paying passengers they are allowed to do so, under the normal Section 30 permit system of the 1968 Transport Act. They make a useful contribution where they are able to be used, but there are disadvantages, because there is the difficulty of estimating what is to be the spare capacity at the different points en route. Also, of course, they are limited to the time of the school terms and are not available when the schools are not open.

I should also like to join in the tributes that have been paid to the WRVS and other organisations which are running the voluntary car schemes at the moment, where groups of volunteers use their own cars to provide the elderly with transport for medical purposes, for social services and for shopping trips. There is a mileage allowance for drivers and the schemes are provided by the local authority, and their expenditure is eligible for transport supplementary grant. None the less, it is a burden on those who do it, and I should certainly like to join with all other noble Lords in expressing my thanks and appreciation to them.

Then, of course, we have the Norfolk village bus scheme, which is a very ambitious voluntary scheme on trial at the moment, making use of a licensed service under the direction of the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company. Here there is a minibus, owned by the company, which serves a group of villages, with volunteer drivers under the control of a local committee. Fares are charged for this and the service operates under a permit which was granted by the Traffic Commissioners under Section 30 of the 1968 Transport Act, in lieu of having a road service licence. I understand that this is proving extremely useful and is doing a very good job of work, and that the idea might be able to be taken up in other places.

The noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, referred to the railways. I am not certain that the Glasgow-Fort William railway is one on which I am competent to speak for the Department. But I will certainly draw my right honourable friend's notice to what has been said by the noble Lord and by the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, about the problems that would be created if this line were to close. I will make more inquiries and will write to both noble Lords if they are prepared to leave it at that. The rail rationalisation programmes created some havoc in the rural areas in the 1950s and 1960s, when some 900 miles of predominantly rural track were closed to passenger traffic. But there has been a hard core of wholly rural passenger services maintained in parts of Scotland, Wales, East Anglia and the South-West. I am advised that these services are extremely uneconomic, but they have been maintained at a steady level—indeed, only 75 miles of rural track have been closed in the last five years—because of their social value to the communities which they link together. I hope that this is something that we are always willing to keep in mind.

The noble Lord, Lord Collison, referred to the problems of county councils, transport grants and providing rural transport. The Transport Act introduced a rural bus grant, whereby local authorities give financial support to the local bus services and central Government contributes 50 per cent. Payments of this grant in 1974–75 amounted to £5.77 million, in addition to the direct Government support of the bus industry, through the new bus grant and the fuel duty rebate on stage services; and those two together account for something like 10 per cent. of the operating costs.

But since the introduction of the transport supplementary grant from April 1975, the payments by county councils in support of rural bus services have been eligible for that grant, and the Government said last year that in future allocations of the grant greater priority will be given to proposals to maintain minimum levels of services for rural areas. Indeed, in August last year the Minister invited the county councils to reconsider, in the light of this policy, the levels of support that they were proposing to give for 1976–77, and about half of the non-metropolitan counties revised their estimates upwards, and the Minister subsequently accepted for transport supplementary grant purposes for 1976–77 virtually the whole of the non-metropolitan counties' bus revenue support estimates, which amounted to over £32 million at November 1974 prices.

The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, asked whether I could give him an assurance that the diminishing trend will be stopped, and indeed reversed. I can give no assurance that goes as far as he would like. All I can say is that we are very conscious of the problems in the rural areas, and we are doing our best to maintain a satisfactory service and to improve it where we can.

The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred to water dropping on a stone, which might eventually wear away the Front Bench and get something from it. Of course, the noble Lord comes from the part of the country where water-worn Westmorland stone survives a lot of drips on it, and I hope he will accept that the Government realise the problems and may be able to provide adequate answers before too long, or at least before all the Westmorland stone is water-worn away.

But even if transport is available in the rural areas, hardship can be involved for rural people, as many noble Lords have said today, if they have to travel long distances to get to the services. Mention has been made of the long and tiring journeys that children have to make to get to school. In my own county, we have children from the fen area who often have to walk one or two miles down a fen drove before they even get on to a road where a bus can pick them up. Of course, there are similar difficulties for elderly people who are visiting friends or relatives in hospitals or in neighbouring towns. I can only hope that all those involved in the provision of services for the rural population, whether they are local authorities, nationalised industries or Government Departments, will remember this and try to adapt their policies whenever possible to the situation of the rural areas. Transporting people to a central point where a full range of services is available may not always be the right answer. A better alternative may be to look at the provision of mobile services in the rural areas. We already have examples of these, including our travelling libraries and mobile clinics, and even in my own city and surrounding villages a mobile play-bus, which is tremendously popular in the more cut off villages.

Again, in the private sector, goods and services are increasingly being supplied from distant urban centres. The growth of the mail order business is an example of the way in which country people get the goods they require without shopping locally. Increased car ownership enables many people in country areas to go to the supermarkets to do their shopping, and refrigerators and deep freezes enable them to do their shopping weekly or even less frequently. The result is a fall in business for the village shops, many of which have closed. Travelling shops, where they are available, make up to some extent for the closure of the local shops, but as the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, reminded us, recent rises in petrol costs have affected even the economics of the travelling shops.

The level of car ownership in rural areas tends to be high, as was demonstrated by the number of people in that part of Oxfordshire who are using public services. People with cars in country districts are often very helpful to their neighbours who are without them. But people do not like to be dependent upon friends and neighbours to offer them transport, and in terms of available services a minority of the rural population finds itself worse off. It is arguable whether the Government can, or indeed should, do anything to interfere with these trends in the private sector, which are largely the result of consumer choice. However, we share the concern at the position of the rural population without access to cars or public transport which finds itself in difficulties.

I have referred to the rural transport experiments which the Government are promoting. Alternative types of rural transport provision are being tried out: the postal bus, the use of the school bus and the voluntary car schemes, to ether with the project, just getting off the ground in Norfolk, of the village bus scheme. My Department are currently financing a research project into rural transport and accessibility at the University of East Anglia, and I know that many county councils, in the preparation of their structure plans and transport budgets, are paying considerable attention to these problems. In the meantime, considerable sums of Government money are going to maintain a minimum level of bus services in rural areas through the county council subsidies.

I mentioned earlier the wide variation in situation between the rural areas in different parts of the country. The provision of services in areas near our great cities and conurbations where the rural population has been increasing, largely as a result of the influx of commuters, presents very different problems from those of the more remote rural areas which are depopulating. An increasing population means strains on services; for example, new schools or school extensions may be needed in the villages. A declining population means rising costs per head of providing services for those remaining, or a risk of the withdrawal of some of the services altogether: perhaps the primary schools having to close, or the bus services no longer paying their pay.

The problems involve a complex interaction of factors which touch a wide range of central, regional and local authorities, and the complexity and variety of the problems means that there can be no universal panacea. It points to a need for the policies of the various authorities involved in providing services in rural areas to be co-ordinated and to have regard to their effects on the overall situation. Speaking for the Department of the Environment, I am also very conscious of the need for policies on the provision of services to be co-ordinated with policies for the conservation and preservation of the countryside and for recreation and tourism there. As I think some noble Lords are aware, with this in mind the Department of the Environment are currently reviewing policies for the rural areas generally.

Research into the problems of rural areas is also being carried out, as was mentioned in the recent Government response to the Report Strategic Choice of East Anglia. Noble Lords like myself who come from that part of England will know that the Report expressed concern at the increasing isolation of the rural areas and of the smaller towns in the region. It drew attention to the difficulties in providing services in these areas and made numerous recommendations regarding particular services, mainly in the direction of decentralisation. We said in reply that the Government recognise the special problems of rural areas which are not so located as to benefit from the spin-off from urban growth. In such areas—this is not only East Anglia—the combined effects of the cumulative reduction in agricultural employment and the progressive concentration of a wide range of public and private services in the larger centres are tending to weaken the economic and social fabric and ultimately will lead to losses in the economically active population. The primary need in such areas is to sustain and diversify the population base. The Development Commission, whose chairman, Lord Northfield, has spoken today, assists small manufacturing and servicing industries in rural areas with advice and finance and, where depopulation is occurring or threatened, they provide factory premises of various kinds. They assist also the work of voluntary bodies providing a wide variety of services designed to enrich the social or the intellectual life for the country people and their environment.

I am aware, both from what has been said this afternoon and generally, of the feeling in some rural areas that people living there are disadvantaged by reason of recent developments, such as the reorganised system of local government, water and health authorities—for example, the reorganisation by the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, of his local ambulance service—which are all based on larger units and provide services that are being administered from distant urban areas, and also by changes in the Exchequer rate support grant. There are dangers inherent in larger units and centralisation and I hope that the local authorities and all those engaged in providing services will be alive to them. But we must not forget what I said earlier about the benefits to the rural population in having a wider range of services available to them and the need for concentration in the interests of efficiency and economy. I know that other factors, such as high food prices in rural areas which were confirmed by the findings of a recent Price Commission survey on food prices, and declining rural bus services, of which we have heard much this afternoon, have contributed to the feelings of neglect among the rural population.

Another source of resentment, which has not been stressed quite so much today but which is there, is the strain on services, to the disadvantage of residents, imposed by day visitors and tourists who are seeking recreation in the countryside. I can understand these feelings. I know also something of the difficulties in certain of our more populated areas created by people who have come in and bought second homes and made life so very difficult for the ones who live there. We can hope only that the fact that no longer can there be an improvement grant for a second home and a tax rebate on a mortgage for a second home may diminish the number of people who are buying these properties. We are aware of the difficulties that are created in a local situation when those who come in are able to outbid the people who want to live all the time in that area.

There are, however, compensations for living in an attractive rural environment. May I try to counter the prevailing note of gloom by pointing out the improvements which have taken place in the availability of services to people in rural areas. It is estimated that 97 per cent. of properties in rural areas are now connected to mains water and that 80 per cent. are sewered. This is a radical improvement from the position in 1939 when at least 1 million of those living in rural districts were without piped water and almost half the parishes in England and Wales were entirely without a sewerage system. Increasing car ownership in rural areas may have undesirable side effects, as we have heard this afternoon, through its contribution to the decline of public transport. But for many other people in rural areas it has greatly increased the range of services and facilities that are available to them. The telephone, the radio and television have done much to lessen the isolation of rural life, and local authorities everywhere are now looking at the plans they are making in order to present their structure plan. In the light of our present economic position, obviously they will have to pose their problems to themselves before they make their decisions. They must face up to decisions as to whether growth ought to be encouraged only where advantage can be taken of a favourable economic structure and good communications. They have to decide whether to plan for a more concentrated pattern of development to reduce the need for movement, with only a few villages, well related to public transport routes, selected for growth. They have to decide what attempts should be made to maintain their present services, thereby incurring higher subsidies. They must accept that there may have to be a withdrawal of services and increasing differences in the standards of access to work and services in different parts of the country.

This is, perhaps, one of the occasions when I do not regret being no longer a member of a county council, because these are very serious matters and they will have a far-reaching effect, but they are decisions which counties have to face up to before they prepare their structure plans. All noble Lords must be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, for giving us the opportunity to take part in, or to listen to, this debate. My Department are as concerned as all the individual noble Lords who have spoken about the problem of rural deprivation, and I know my right honourable friend will read the report of this debate with interest.

There is a real opportunity for community self-help in many of the rural areas and, indeed, many of the rural areas are showing those of us who live in the urban areas how we ought to set about it; and it happens so much more frequently in the country than in the town. I do not think there can be any general guidelines laid down by my Department, since the problems of each area are quite different. However, I can assure noble Lords that we will look sympathetically at any schemes put to us which might benefit from more Government help or local authority help, although I am sure noble Lords will appreciate that in our present economic climate any financial help cannot be too generous. This debate has once again shown the value of these short debates and has given us all a great deal to consider. I am grateful to those noble Lords who have made it possible.

7.21 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for her reply, although in some measure it is rather frightening. I should also like to thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. I, personally, have learned a lot. I wish only to make two very short comments which apply to the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, and also to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman. When you are dealing with people in rural populations will you, please, remember that they are very individualistic. The communities are very small, and when we hear that things are going to happen because everything is centralised, it means strangers. Now strangers are not very welcome in rural communities, particularly when they are trying to reorganise something about which the local community thinks it knows better than they do. On that note, my Lords, I again thank noble Lords for their contributions, and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, with drawn.