I am the first to welcome you back to the Chair this morning, Mr. Taylor.
Amendment No. 144, which was tabled by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, is pretty self-explanatory, so I do not intend to spend too long speaking to it. The Bill allows authorities to replace their plan as when they see fit and does not force them to replace plans every five years. The amendment would confer a duty on local transport authorities to review their local transport plans every five years and to show that that had been done. That would ensure that a local transport authority could not simply leave an unsatisfactory local transport plan languishing on the table. The amendment is probing to find out Government thinking on ensuring that local authorities take seriously the need to ensure that their local transport plans are up to date and remain relevant to the needs of the local community.
As the Liberal Democrat spokesman said, amendment No. 144 would mean that plans were reviewed every five years. I have some sympathy for the amendment, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman advanced. The amendment would mean that authorities had to
“review their plan...once every five years”,
but I would have liked the hon. Gentleman to go a little further, because it does not suggest any action or require the authority to do anything. Although I am sympathetic to the proposal, it suffers from two defects: it calls only for a review and does not define the timetable for the plan thereafter.
Local authorities are required to replace their transport plans every five years. Subsection (3) will change that so that authorities can replace their plans whenever they see fit. I am in favour of giving local transport authorities greater flexibility in timetabling the replacement of their transport plans, but amendment No. 37 is motivated by my two concerns about the wording of the clause, and I hope that the Minister will address them.
My primary fear relates to the fact that “as they think fit” is a phrase of uncertainty because there will be no fixed timetable. Although we require and encourage the flexibility that not having a fixed timetable allows, if there is no fixed timetable, or if matters are left to when an authority sees fit, it is possible to envisage situations in which local passengers would not know from one week to the next how services would run. That would undermine the hope of persuading people to use public transport and increasing public transport patronage.
How are local operators of local services to plan ahead if the council’s transport plan can be changed at any moment? No one is suggesting that that will happen, and I do not necessarily mean that it will happen from one moment to the next. None the less, an element of uncertainty arises from the words “as they think fit.”
Amendment No. 37 would ensure that local authorities retained the flexibility and autonomy that they needed in deciding when to replace their plans, but it would require them to give “one year’s notice” of such replacement, thereby eliminating potential uncertainty.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument on uncertainty, but surely an authority being required to give 12 months’ notice would be as uncertain as a review of a transport plan.
Perhaps it would help if I set out what we are trying to achieve in the first place with the changes in clause 9. The Transport Act 2000 requires all English local transport authorities to keep their local transport plans up to date and replace them every five years. It also places authorities under a general duty to keep their plans under review. Under the Bill, we are changing the system to allow local transport authorities to replace their local transport plans as they see fit. It does not alter the duty to keep the plans under review.
We want to do that because we want local transport authorities to have plans that are more responsive to the particular needs of each area. The Bill, for example, enables authorities to replace different parts of their plans at different frequencies. In larger areas in particular, a local transport plan might include both a long-term strategy and a phased plan for implementing its proposals. An authority might want to update the implementation part of the plan more frequently than it needed to revisit its overall strategy. Another example might an authority wanting to revise its parking strategy after 18 months, but not needing to do the same for buses or road safety. Again, the Bill will give the authorities the flexibility to change parts of their local transport plan without having to go through all the bureaucracy of replacing it all at the same time.
The amendment moved by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington—I take his point about it being probing—would require local transport plans to be reviewed every five years, but not necessarily replaced. As I said, local transport authorities are already under a duty to keep their plans under review. That is set out in section 109(1) of the 2000 Act and we are not proposing any change to that duty. We feel, therefore, that the amendment would not add anything to that duty. It is superfluous. It could also be counter-productive, because keeping a plan under review should be a continuous business, while the amendment suggests a specific process done only every so often, and at least every five years.
Local authorities’ existing plans are due to run until 2010-11, and by summer 2009 we intend to have issued them with guidance on producing future transport plans. We will put a draft of that guidance out to consultation around the end of this year. Among other things, the guidance is likely to cover the process of reviewing and replacing local transport plans, and how and with what frequency, taking local circumstances into account, authorities should be looking to do that.
The hon. Gentleman might be concerned that a local authority may change its plan very rarely—perhaps that is the point of his amendment—but the response we have had from local authorities shows that they think that the local transport plans are useful documents, so I do not think that there is a serious risk that they will just put them on the shelf for five years, or for ever, and never look at them again.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be interested in looking at the guidance when it comes out. I can assure him that we shall set out what we think is an appropriate way to continue that process of monitoring the local transport plans positively so that they reflect local circumstances and differing needs at different times.
Amendment No. 37 would introduce a new duty on local transport authorities to give a year’s notice of their intention to replace their plans, as the hon. Member for Wimbledon said. Preparing and replacing a local transport plan cannot be done overnight, not least because local transport plans are, for example, subject to EU regulations on environmental assessments. Clause 9 already places duties to consult on authorities, which could not be met by plans being produced overnight.
I hope that it offers hon. Members some reassurance to know that the new duty to replace plans as authorities see fit will not lead to constant changing of plans with little notice being given, if that is the worry in relation to the amendment.
Authorities will need to take the process of reviewing, changing and having proper consultations on their plans very seriously. However, requiring a year’s notice would run the risk of erecting a bureaucratic obstacle to the replacement of plans. In many cases, authorities may need a year, or more, to develop, consult on and approve their plans, but not necessarily. One example, which is particularly appropriate at this point, is a newly elected administration wishing to change parts of its local plan as soon as possible. If some groundwork had been done as part of routine work carried out under the previous administration, it might not take a further year to complete the work. However, as it is not clear whether the amendment would apply to the replacement of part of a plan, it could be an obstacle to such updating.
Likewise, an authority might develop a local transport plan consisting of a longer-term strategy and a shorter-term implementation plan. The authority might want to replace just the implementation part of the plan, which might be achievable in less than a year, even allowing for consulting properly on the changes.
A local transport authority might be able to comply with the requirement to give at least a year’s notice, but, for reasons outside its control, it might need to replace its plans at a date later than the one it originally gave in the notice. It is not clear what legal effect the amendment would have in those particular circumstances.
In summary, local transport authorities are already under a duty to consult on their local transport plans. The amendments propose extra administrative duties, which we do not feel would secure more co-operation between local transport authorities and other bodies. In some circumstances, they would constrain the flexibility that we are aiming to introduce.
I hope that I have given some reassurance to Opposition Members and that they will not press the amendments.
‘and representatives of town and parish councils in the county’.
Although the increased flexibility for planning and implementing local transport plans is welcome, the requirement for local transport authorities or county councils simply to consult district councils in their area does not go far enough. If we are serious about local decision making and if local transport plans are to be as responsive to the needs of local communities as possible and as responsive to people in rural areas as they are to those in urban and metropolitan areas, it is essential that local transport plans are built from the bottom up. Therefore, town and parish councils, as the most local form of government, have an important role to play in feeding in the voices of the smallest rural communities.
The issue is particularly important, given that the Bill amends the 2000 Act to remove the need for a local transport authority to produce a bus strategy. Although the concept of an integrated transport plan is welcome, the bus strategy is very important in rural areas, where buses are often the only viable form of public transport. In rural areas, local services and facilities are often few, limited and geographically disparate. Lack of access to transport, particularly public transport, leaves many people facing difficult circumstances and, often, social exclusion. Lack of transport can have a multitude of negative effects, including reducing employment and educational opportunities and access to health care and social and leisure activities. That is particularly the case for the 11 per cent. of rural households without a car. The young and the elderly feature highly in that category.
Public transport is needed by people living in rural areas just as it is by those living in urban areas, but the lower population density of rural areas and the greater distances between villages and towns mean that public transport services tend to be less frequent and, as a result, less convenient. That means that more people must rely on cars for their day-to-day transport, which has significant implications for congestion levels and the environment, both of which are of growing concern to the public and lie at the heart of the Government’s current legislative programme.
Car ownership and use is high in rural areas: 52 per cent. of rural households have two or more cars, and three quarters of all journeys in rural areas are made by car. On average, rural residents travel more than 40 per cent. further than urban residents each week, because facilities and services are farther away. As services are lost—a current topic is post offices—people must travel further.
I agree that that should happen, but the amendment would ensure that, as part of the process, town and parish councils were statutory consultees.
If we are to create sustainable public transport networks, with the aim of providing greater access to services and facilities for people living in rural communities and, in the long term, reducing reliance on the car, transport schemes and local transport plans must be created with reference to the social and economic needs of local communities. It is essential that, when creating local transport plans, local authorities undertake accessibility planning. There is a need for more flexibility in the types of transport provided and for more demand-responsive services, such as minibus routes for a number of individuals in remote areas.
The appropriate planning of transport schemes and strategies in rural areas has the potential to rejuvenate communities and provide an essential lifeline for villages that do not have ready access to key services and facilities, thereby ensuring their sustainability. The Bill must take account of the needs of rural communities and those who live and work in the countryside, which is why it is vital to ensure proper consultation with that smallest form of government.
As the hon. Gentleman said, his amendment would put in place a specific statutory requirement for local transport authorities to consider the views of town and parish councils when developing and implementing their transport policies. I have said that consultation is already an integral part of the development of the local transport plan process. Local transport authorities already consult many interested and affected groups when developing local transport plans, including key delivery partners, such as town and parish councils. Moreover, the clause requires local transport authorities to consult on local transport plans. The only consultees specified by name are certain other local authorities, and the Secretary of State. However, it is also specified that local transport authorities must consult any “such other persons as” they consider appropriate.
As I have said, we intend to develop guidance for local authorities in preparation for the next round of local transport plans. I am sure that other hon. Members share the hon. Gentleman’s views, and in areas where it is appropriate to consult parish and town councils, we want that to happen.
Does the Minister accept that there may be circumstances in which a transport authority might not want to consult a parish or town council because it thought that the council might be a nuisance or because it was run by a different political party and was not the sort of organisation that it wanted to consult? Surely, if the consultation is put on a statutory footing, we would avoid the possibility of a local authority choosing to ignore the views of elected members of the community.
As ever, however, there is a danger in some of those circumstances of putting a long list in the Bill, when the appropriate place for such advice is the guidance itself. If we put that in the Bill, there is always a danger that it will become out of date or place one group above another. We do not believe that putting a whole list of consultees in the Bill is the right approach because it is important to have some flexibility in how we approach consultation, which is why we believe that it is better to put it in guidance.
The guidance will emphasise the importance of consulting appropriate bodies. We may give examples of what might be considered appropriate bodies, but I emphasise that we tend, rightly, to put guidance out for consultation. I would not want to write the guidance in the Committee, but we will certainly draw attention to the sort of bodies that might be considered appropriate.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. She talks about the need for flexibility, but I would argue the opposite: we ought to be quite inflexible when considering whether to consult parish or town councils. We should say, “Yes, we will do so under all circumstances.”
That is the hon. Gentleman’s view. My view is that we might wish to consult other bodies. As I have said, parish councils might well be appropriate consultees. When we consider some of the Bill’s later clauses, particularly those relating to improvements to community transport, we will see that there are lots of ways in which parish and town councils might have an appropriate role. However, I do not want to get into the business of putting every consultee on the face of the Bill, because there is always a danger of missing out a group or giving one group precedence over another. We do not want to put it on the face of the Bill, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will certainly consider referring to parish and town councils in the guidance.
A local transport plan might refer to establishing a quality partnership that goes nowhere near a particular parish council, because the parish council might be in a completely different area from the one proposed for the quality partnership. In those circumstances, I suspect that the guidance would say that the relevant bodies within an area should be consulted, but overall, I expect the drawing up of local transport plans generally to involve consultation with a number of bodies, and I am sure that we will suggest in the guidance that parish and town councils may be appropriate bodies.
I also emphasise that when we issue guidance, we try to consult on it beforehand. When the hon. Gentleman sees it, he might like to contribute to it anything that is missing, but I assure him that we will consider it seriously. I understand his point, but I do not feel that it is right to put long lists on the face of the Bill.
‘(c) operators of bus services which are provided within the authority’s area or organisations appearing to the authority to be representative of such operators,
(d) operators of rail services which are provided within the authority’s area or organisations appearing to the authority to be representative of such operators,
(e) any relevant rail infrastructure manager,
(f) organisations appearing to the authority to be representative of users of local transport.’.
‘(d) operators of bus services which are provided within the authority’s area or organisations appearing to the authority to be representative of such operators,
(e) operators of rail services which are provided within the authority’s area or organisations appearing to the authority to be representative of such operators,
(f) any relevant rail infrastructure manager,
(g) organisations appearing to the authority to be representative of users of local transport.’.
The amendments would mean that operators of bus and rail services and passengers should be consulted before local authorities and ITAs make local transport plans. I suspect, given what happened to the previous amendment, that I am probably not going to get very far with this.
The 2000 Act and the Bill do not confer a duty to have regard to other things but it makes sense that they should have regard to promoting integrated transport and how the bus and rail network should work together. Route utilisation strategies are central to the forward planning activity of the railway industry. They set out current capacity passenger and freight demand, operation performance and cost projections to address the future requirements of rail users, funders and key stakeholders. The rail utilisation strategies then perform the development and delivery of timetables, infrastructure, maintenance and renewals of the network. If local transport authorities are to be safe, integrated, economic, environmentally sustainable and efficient they must take into account the area’s current and future rail capacity.
The Government will almost certainly argue that it is more appropriate for local authorities to decide which organisations they consult, given what has already been said this morning. By and large that is true, but how many local authority areas do not contain an operating railway station, for instance? It cannot be many, if any.
The Minister will probably say that the Government will put in guidance the kind of bodies it would be appropriate for local authorities to consult and the kind of plans and strategies that should be considered. She will almost certainly say that it is preferable to have such bodies in guidance rather than in the Bill because it would be a long list and would become increasingly out of date over time. There may be some sense in that. However, if anything, the railways are set to become more important and as it is much harder to move a railway station than a bus stop there is a need to encourage more integrated working. There needs to be a stronger relationship in the legislation between what we do with rail and what we do with road.
The amendments mirror in their intent, and go slightly further than, my amendments Nos. 38 and 39, which were not selected. They also mirror the arguments we had on Tuesday afternoon regarding amendment No. 36. They specify rail infrastructure managers who, under the definition we discussed on Tuesday, include operators. There is some merit in putting them in the Bill because the rail network, as I have previously explained, transcends local authority borders and is managed or operated in most cases by local transport authorities, but at the beginning and the end of train journeys users will be reliant on transport services which are put in place by the local authority. Therefore, as we discussed previously, there is some merit in giving such local transport authorities a responsibility to consult.
The amendments go further than amendment No. 36, and there is wide, all-encompassing phraseology in the Bill regarding such persons as the local authorities consider fit. That would seem to cover operators of bus services, operators of rail services and organisations representing local users of transport. It would be highly unusual if it did not. However, as I said on Tuesday and on previous occasions, unless we have real reassurance, I am, in principle, in favour of a concept that details the responsibilities that are specific to local authorities and those that transcend what local authorities might do. I am particular about having those responsibilities set out in the Bill.
Although the Minister gave great reassurance regarding the last amendment, on Tuesday I was not minded to accept her reassurance regarding amendment No. 36. As those two amendments almost mirror in intent amendment No. 136, unless the Minister is able to give us more reassurance than she did on Tuesday, I am minded to support amendments Nos. 142 and 143, if the Liberal Democrat spokesman wants to test the will of the Committee.
It is kind of the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington almost to give my speech for me. In doing so, he has indeed anticipated a lot of what I was going to say.
This debate is an absolute illustration of the fact that, once we start down the line of trying to put into primary legislation everything about who should be consulted, every member of the Committee could think of somebody else whom they felt it appropriate to consult. The debate illustrates the danger of trying to go down that track.
All the bodies that the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his amendment would be bodies that we would be putting in the guidance; that is without doubt. However, I must say that I do not feel that it is appropriate to put lists of such bodies in the Bill, although I can assure him that they are absolutely the type of bodies that we shall refer to in the guidance and we would expect local authorities to consult them. I hope that gives the reassurance that the hon. Member for Wimbledon in particular was looking for.
I am not sure that the Minister’s comments give me the reassurance that I was looking for, and I am not sure that they will reassure the hon. Member for Wimbledon either. I do not see a strong argument as to why those bodies cannot be set out in the Bill. Given that I am likely to attract more than one vote, I am minded to go for a further Division.