The Government's policies recognise the value of community and voluntary transport, and the introduction of the urban bus challenge will further encourage that. Community transport already benefits from our rural transport funding and my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that many local communities will benefit from the 45 per cent. increase in support for rural bus services that was announced in the rural White Paper.
I am also pleased to say that we are announcing today the intention to give local authorities more flexibility to use this funding to safeguard existing bus services, as well as to provide entirely new services. In addition, we will consult shortly on extending the bus fuel duty rebate and other measures to encourage the expansion of the community transport sector.
I thank my hon. Friend for that encouraging answer. Is he aware that some urban bus companies in medium-sized towns and cities try to streamline their services by cutting out neighbourhood bus routes, which are a particular benefit to the elderly, people who attend hospital and those with restricted mobility? Does he think that an effective community bus trust would resolve many of those issues, if implemented well locally? Is he prepared to venture that his Department would look favourably on the formation of trusts that might fall foul of remnants of the Transport Act 1985?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I am aware that the possible loss of neighbourhood feeder services is an issue in Southampton, and he is right to raise it. We are keen to see the development of community provision, and there are likely to be opportunities for that in the urban bus challenge, as announced in our 10-year plan. The aim is to contribute towards improving transport provision for deprived urban areas, not only in inner cities but in outlying urban estates. Some £40 million will be available over the next three years, and we would certainly expect community transport schemes, with various structures, to be a prominent part of the project.
Will the Minister consider the bus routes that are operated by First York, and in particular the increasing unreliability of its bus schedules, from which a number of services have been cancelled? The community element of the service is that it gives people who live in Haxby and Wigginton access to York hospital. Without that bus route, they will simply not arrive to visit patients.
The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of bus services in her constituency, and we share her concerns. We recognise that bus services, and in particular local authority budgets for bus subsidies, are under pressure in some areas, and that tender prices for subsidised services have been increasing. She will be pleased to learn that the recent revenue support grant settlement took those pressures into account.
May I stress to my hon. Friend how important it is that we deal with the legacy of deregulation in our urban areas? Last week, PMT, the local bus company in Stoke-on-Trent, announced the withdrawal of bus services 86, 92, 94 and 96. There will be quality partnerships across the city, but people who live on its fringes and cannot access the fast bus routes will not be able to make use of public transport. Will he look closely at how he can assist us to get back those crucial neighbourhood bus services?
My hon. Friend is right. It is disturbing to hear of the loss of services in Stoke-on-Trent because PMT has withdrawn some routes. She is absolutely right to draw attention to the disastrous loss of bus services as a result of deregulation and privatisation, which reduced bus passenger journeys by 13 million a day. However, I am delighted that there are signs that the Government are turning around the long-term decline in bus use, and we are determined to achieve further growth.
I believe that the urban bus challenge will offer opportunities for Stoke-on-Trent. We will certainly support the best projects for which bids are submitted and will issue guidance and invitations to bid, with the aim of starting the first round of projects later this year.