asked the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the effects on the vehicle mileage run by the National Bus Company as stage carriage services which may result from the cutbacks in local authority expenditure, the phasing-out of new bus grants and the financial requirements he has placed on the National Bus Company.
The vehicle mileage of the National Bus Company, as with any other transport operator, must be determined by passenger demand and the efficient use of resources. It is not possible to assess the effect on total mileage of the particular circumstances set out by the hon. Member.
Does the Minister accept that the National Bus Company predicts a loss of 60 million passenger miles in the forthcoming year as a result of these policies? Contrary to what the Secretary of State has said in the past, will the Minister accept also that it has nothing to do with a drop in demand but is the result of shortcomings on the supply side of bus transport arising exclusively from Government policies?
The National Bus Company's patronage fell by 10 per cent. in 1980, and mileage reductions have to follow the loss of passengers. My right hon. Friend and I recently met the board of the National Bus Company and its trade union representatives. I am sure that they appreciate that the future of the bus company depends on its ability to win traffic, get down costs, and match its services with demand. Its great success on the national express runs in building up patronage shows what can be done now that we have freed the company from some of the licensing restrictions.
Is the Under-Secretary aware of the disastrous effect that the economic recession is having on National Bus subsidiaries which operate in holiday areas such as mine, where already Southern Vectis has had to approach the local authority for a handout of £50,000? Will the hon. and learned Gentleman take that into account in considering the pressures on local authorities, particularly with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment? Local authorities are now in an impossible position if they wish to maintain rural bus services.
The National Bus Company already gets £94 million from central and local government, so it receives substantial support. We still back with grant county councils which give revenue support to services in their areas, and we are anxious that they should extend rural services in every way. However, that involves trying to identify genuine passenger demand and then finding low cost and suitable means of meeting it.
Does the Under-Secretary concede that the 16 million service miles which the NBC intends to cut from its existing services will all take place in either rural services or off-peak urban services—in other words, nothing will be taken from the express services? If the hon. and learned Gentleman acknowledges that, does he care that there is to be a massive drop in public transport services in some parts of the country? If he does care, will he take some initiative, with the National Bus Company, with the local authorities whose areas are affected, or with both to try to save some of these passenger transport services?
As the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, the mileage and the passengers are increasing on the express services. The reductions in mileage are taking place where the passenger demand has gone. There is no point in running empty buses for the sake of it, if there are no passengers for them. The answer in the end is to match supply to demand and cut costs. In areas such as East Devon, where the National Bus Company has withdrawn from many routes, I am glad to say that a number of low-cost local independent operators have come forward to provide flexible and cheaper services, which are meeting the demand for transport. We are interested in the demand for transport and not in just keeping one system going in a way that suits the right hon. Gentleman.
Does my hon. and learned Friend consider that this might be an opportunity, with the drop in rural bus services, actively to promote the car-sharing scheme that the Government started? If the Government showed more interest in that and spent on it a minuscule amount of money—certainly compared with the amount that is spent on subsidising bus services—there would be a substantial return on that money and there would be more interest in the scheme.
We certainly take an interest in the scheme. Of course, we got rid of all the absurd restrictions on car sharing, although the Opposition wanted to defend each restriction when we debated the matter last year. We are now advertising the change in the law, so that people know that they can share cars sensibly, sharing the costs without insurance fears, and so on. I am convinced that many more people will begin to share their cars and reduce transport costs in making regular journeys to work and to the shops, and so on.