My Lords, decisions about the provision of bus services requiring local government subsidy are a matter for individual English local authorities in the light of their other spending priorities. The majority of public funding for local bus services is via the block grant provided to local authorities in England from DCLG. The Department for Transport also provides £40 million in bus service operators grant funding directly to English local authorities to help deliver local bus services.
My Lords, that is a factually correct account. However, all over the country there are horrific stories about local bus services being cut as a result of cuts in council subsidies as a result of cuts in the funding of local authorities. In my own county of Lancashire, the proposal that will go before the county council is to abolish bus subsidies for services to villages, services in rural areas, and the little buses that go around the towns, which are so important. Is this really the legacy that this Government want to leave?
It is not. I mentioned the bus service operators grant. In Lancashire, last year, we provided £1.86 million directly for the purposes of retaining services. The Government are looking at the overall offering of bus services, particularly in rural areas, to ensure both connectivity and the sustainability of essential transport links.
My Lords, did the Minister happen to see the BBC “Countryfile” programme last Sunday, which set out starkly the decline in bus services throughout this country, particularly in rural areas? Does he agree with the conclusions of that programme that this decline is largely due to the reduction in government payments to local authorities and direct grants for bus services? Can he assure the House that the much-vaunted devolution of these services will be accompanied by proper finance? Otherwise, some of us might suspect, that decline will continue, with the blame moving from Whitehall to the town hall.
I did not see the programme. Part of my Sundays are taken up with my own “countryfile” responsibilities of helping my children build their country projects—in this case, however, it was a chocolate cake.
To get back to the question, the noble Lord is quite right to point out that there are challenges in funding. However, this is not about apportioning blame to one over the other; it is about ensuring that essential services are sustained, and the Government are moving forward on this. Indeed, yesterday, during the debate on the devolution Bill, I talked about the creation of STBs, which I intend will ensure that local decisions on transport are made by the people who know best.
My Lords, given the drop in fuel prices, what action have the Government taken to ensure that there is now a reduction in bus fares to reflect the reduced cost arising from that?
As the noble Lord will be aware, one of the legislative proposals coming forward is the buses Bill, which will ensure again that local authorities are empowered—through the purposes of franchising, for example—to ensure better, sustainable fares and the sustaining of essential bus services. That will form part and parcel of the Bill.
My Lords, Conservative councillors in Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset are all among those proposing swingeing cuts to bus services across the country. Indeed, Somerset plans to cut community transport schemes which are usually the last refuge for rural services. The Government proposed after the election the reform of the bus service operators grant. That is clearly now delayed. Can the Minister tell the House when announcements will be made on this? Can he assure us that any reform of this grant will include an element for mileage which would protect rural bus services?
I am sure the noble Baroness is aware that the grant she talks about is being protected. Indeed, in the last spending round that is exactly the commitment given by my right honourable friend. The announcements are imminent and will be made quite shortly. I also draw the noble Baroness’s attention to the total transport pilot fund we are currently allocating to 37 local authorities which are looking at an integrated form and retention of transport funding, which includes the bus services operators grant, local bus services support through DCLG, home-to-school transport provided through DfE and DCLG, and non-emergency patient transport. We need an integrated approach to long-term solutions and sustainability at a local level.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is unfortunate that some local authorities are making cuts in services when they are sitting on substantial reserves?
I agree with my noble friend but, as I have said already, it is very much a decision-making matter for local authorities. We are, through various legislative measures that we have taken in the previous Government and in this Government—only yesterday through the devolution Bill—underlining the importance this Government attaches to local decision-making, including on transport.
My Lords, local decision-making is extremely important but it requires funds to underpin it. However, much has been made about the need for good rural bus services. At the moment the cuts in rural bus services are hitting students particularly harshly. Will the Minister have a discussion with his colleagues in the Department for Education so that we can ensure that students choose their post-education studies on the basis of what is best for their future and not on the availability of buses to get them to and from their courses?
I assure the noble Baroness that I have regular discussions and conversations with colleagues across a vast range of areas and across different ministries. The total transport pilot fund I have highlighted again underlines the Government’s commitment to look at how funding works and how government funding is sourced and provided at a local level across a range of different departments. We are half-way through the pilot and I shall report back once we have completed it.
My Lords, do the Government agree that public services are part of our living standards and that when measuring the cost of living it is not only the retail prices index that is not moved by these affairs? People have to go to a supermarket a long way away and pay for a taxi or make some other arrangement. Is there not a case for an inquiry into how we measure the cost of living when it does not include these major elements?
As a public servant I agree with the opening statement of the noble Lord: the public sector is an important part of this. I do not agree with the premise that an inquiry is required. When it comes to transport, we need to ensure that we have schemes in place that work for ensuring sustainable transport at a local level. That is the Government’s priority.