Lord Polak debates involving the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

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Thu 24th November 2016 Rural Bus Services (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (496 words)

Rural Bus Services

Lord Polak Excerpts
Thursday 24th November 2016

(4 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Portrait Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate (Con) (Maiden Speech)
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My Lords, I rise to address the House for the first time with a mixture of pride and trepidation. It is a pleasure to participate in this important, if short, debate, instigated by the right reverend Prelate. Let me say at the outset how grateful I am to my supporting Peers, my noble friends Lord Hunt of Wirral and Lord Freeman, not only for their kindness and good advice on many occasions in the past and on my introduction to the House, but for their exemplary public service. I must also thank the staff of the House for their immediate helpfulness and warmth of welcome. My attempts to recognise the names of all our doorkeepers are progressing well, with only the occasional error caused by their official photographs not always being completely up to date. I mentioned my pride in being here. That pride is shared by my wife and four sons, and I know also that my late parents would have felt the same. I certainly intend to make a full and positive contribution to the affairs of the House.

I have been active in politics for more than 50 years. I have served as a county councillor, a Member of Parliament and Minister in the other place, and then for 17 years in the European Parliament, including having the privilege of leading our MEPs there for six years. I am now honoured to have been elevated to your Lordships’ House on the recommendation of the former Prime Minister David Cameron, to whom I would like to pay a special tribute for all the good things he did for our country. In the aftermath of June, it is inevitable that he will not yet receive the credit he deserves for his premiership, but I am certain that in the fullness of time that should and will be remedied.

I grew up in an urban environment in Newcastle upon Tyne, where I was educated at the Royal Grammar School and was in a legal partnership, before taking my parliamentary seat in Leeds North East, another predominantly urban area. Only when I became MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, an area covering 6,000 square miles and with 5.2 million inhabitants, did I realise how important our rural communities and the rural economy are to our country. Needless to say, my elected service to the people of Yorkshire for nearly 30 years is something I will always cherish.

In this necessarily short contribution I want simply to emphasise the importance of rural agencies and organisations such as our parish and town councils, which do such an important job of co-ordinating community activity. I congratulate particularly those councillors who give so much of their time voluntarily; I have seen much evidence of that in my work in Yorkshire. But those organisations need re-innervating, with more encouragement and more acknowledgment.

Parish councils are of course responsible for bus shelters, but not sufficiently for planning the most suitable means of transporting people in their locality. The Rural Challenge report in 2010 made proposals that highlighted the need to use existing facilities, rather than merely funding new ones, including our community halls, churches and church buildings, postmen and women, market town partnerships and local businesses. Informing local people of bus services or alternative shared transport schemes, using IT where available and pressing for its availability where not, must be part of that agenda. The idea of having village agents to advise on needs and opportunities should be explored further. Establishing needs and meeting them brings communities together and reassures those who live in rural areas that they are as important as urban dwellers to government at all levels. Future transport plans must, in my view, reflect that balance.

Lord Polak Portrait Lord Polak (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on securing this debate. As he knows, I live not very far from St Albans and am delighted, therefore, that he is my local bishop. It gives me enormous pleasure to follow the maiden speech of my long-standing and noble friend Lord Kirkhope. His record of public and political service is second to none. His tenacity, coupled with his remarkable ability to prove doubters wrong, will be a great asset to your Lordships’ House. He was a highly regarded MP for Leeds North East and a Home Office Minister in John Major’s Government, and after losing his seat he bounced back and became a trusted and effective MEP for Yorkshire, including two shifts as leader. This time, after the people of Britain have decided to remove all our MEPs, once again he has bounced back to join us in your Lordships’ House, and we will all benefit as a result.

In my area of Hertsmere, next door to St Albans, the local MP, Oliver Dowden, has been working extremely hard to preserve transport services for the community and minimise local disruption as a result of the county council cutting subsidies. It is true that our area could at best be described as semi-rural, but it is also true that it is the so-called semi-rural areas on the outskirts of London that need good connectivity and transport links too. It is heartening that the Bus Services Bill, which has had its Third Reading in the House, provides powers that enable local transport authorities to work in partnership with transport providers to ensure that services reflect the needs of local people. However, in the case of Hertsmere, it is the responsibility of TfL to do more to support these links. Will my noble friend the Minister urge TfL to play its full role in this regard?

We are all aware of the great strengths of rural communities, and I am certain that the announcement made by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement to double the rural rate relief to 100% in 2017 will play an important part in ensuring that there are enhanced conditions for rural businesses to grow and prosper. The Federation of Small Businesses report of May 2016 entitled, Going the Extra Mile: Connecting Businesses and Rural Communities, concluded:

“Improving the quality of transport links will help small businesses to become more productive, increase employment and make even more of a contribution to the UK economy than they currently do”.

It is true, however, that transport connectivity can be unsatisfactory, as we have heard. Does the Minister agree with me that the £25 million community bus fund has been a great success, with the Government having provided almost 200 community transport operators with a free minibus, thus providing vital transport services in certain rural areas across the country? The scheme has indeed been successful, but will the Minister look at ways of expanding the community bus fund?

Lord Greaves (LD)
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My Lords, I too thank the right reverend Prelate for introducing this debate. The first point I want to make is one I often make: rural areas do not exist in isolation; they exist as part of an area that includes their local market and small towns, and the two are very often closely interlinked. We hear an increasingly large amount about big cities and city regions, and people talk about the more sparsely populated rural areas. The area I live in, in east Lancashire, is typical of a great deal of England: it consists of a mixture of small and medium-sized towns and the villages and rural areas that surround them. The two are closely interlinked, not least in the case of bus services.

Very often, the bus services that serve the villages are actually town-to-town bus services, which would not exist if there was not the trade from the towns. One of those, which we fought hard to maintain in the spring of this year when Lancashire County Council was discussing proposals to stop all subsidies to bus services, which I think were about £8 million in total, is the 65 bus. It runs from Burnley through the small town of Padiham, through the Pendle villages of Higham and Fence, and then through to Barrowford and Nelson, which is another small or medium-sized town. It provides services round the back streets and estates of Burnley, and then goes into the countryside and provides essential services for these villages. I have to report that the county council—the Labour county council, I regret to say—for Burnley Central West, which covers part of that area in Burnley, wrote on Facebook, when we were campaigning to save this service:

“Yes, our Liberal Democrat partners did betray us in saving our most vulnerable elderly for the sake of a few bus routes. May they rot in hell forever”.

I think he was referring to the Liberal Democrats rather than the vulnerable elderly. I am pleased to say that we did save the service. Whether we will rot in hell for ever afterwards, I do not know. Perhaps I will need to take advice from the right reverend Prelate on rather more than bus services after this debate.

The right reverend Prelate and other speakers, including my noble friend Lady Scott, are right that the heart of this issue is not the question of rural services but of all services and the funding of local authorities. Most of the cuts in bus services, according to the Government’s statistics, have been in subsidised services. It will happen again in the budgets for Lancashire this year and next year. It is not possible for local authorities to continue to fund everything they do if their budgets are being cut by millions and millions of pounds. In Lancashire it is something like one-third of a billion over three or four years. If those cuts have to be imposed it will be impossible to maintain those services.

The basic message for the Government from this and many other debates is that local authorities have come to the end of the road of what they can subsidise and pay for that are not statutory services. There is no hope for subsidised services, whether or not the new Bus Services Bill comes through, unless the Government are prepared to fund local authorities in a more reasonable and practical way than they are proposing to do.