Department for Transport — Transport and the Economy
Vote on Account 2012-13
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield, Labour)
I want to take this opportunity to raise the issue of declining rural bus services, especially in County Durham and in Sedgefield.
County Durham is a rural area and home to many villages, most of which had a colliery at one time. When the collieries were open, people did not have very far to
travel, but now that the collieries have closed many people find that they have to travel a long way, and many miles, to get to work, so a reliable public bus service is a necessity.
The bus service is required not only for work, but by young people who want to go to college; by the elderly, who might want to go to hospital or to a medical appointment; by the same groups of people to see friends and family; especially by young people just starting out on their career, who may not have the money to buy a car and need the bus to get to work; and by people on low incomes. We need to think also of the unemployed, who might see a job in the newspaper or in the jobcentre that they would love to do, but who know that they cannot apply for it because there is no bus service to take them to the factory or the office.
Concerns about local bus services have risen up the political agenda not only in areas such as Sedgefield over the past couple of years, but in the rest of County Durham. I have a steady flow of complaints from constituents who are incensed at the cuts to services, especially by Arriva, which pulls services at the last moment, without any notification or consultation. Any cancellation of a route is not well advertised. On more than one occasion, whole villages have been left without any services whatsoever. When I compare the services that Arriva has in County Durham with those that it has in London, I think, yes, we should have an excellent public transport service in the capital city, but we need something equivalent in our rural areas as well, with regulation to ensure that there is a social obligation on privatised bus companies to ensure that people can get to work.
Bus services are being cut in our rural areas as part of the expenditure cuts to address the deficit. There has been a 28% fall in funding for councils, combined with the ending of ring-fencing of grants for bus services, a 20% cut in the bus service operators grant paid to bus companies, and a shake-up of the free travel scheme for pensioners. Pensioners now often say, “What is the point of a bus pass if there are no buses to catch because they have been cancelled?” As a consequence of all these cuts, Durham county council has withdrawn £322,000 in funding from subsidised public transport routes, leaving many villages with few or no services in the evening or at the weekend. My postbag has been full of letters and petitions about the repercussions of the changes brought about by spending cuts originating in Whitehall.
Let me explain what this has meant in practice for people needing these services in the rural communities of Sedgefield—villages such Bishop Middleham and Fishburn, as well as Middleton St George, which is in the south of the constituency. One local constituent can no longer get to work without the help of friends, and others can no longer catch a bus and so have to use a taxi, which obviously inflates the cost of getting to work.