27 February 1998

Mr. Harold Best MP (Lab. Leeds North-West)

Five of my seven grandchildren suffer from asthma to varying extents. That causes particularly stressful problems. Anyone who has seen a victim in terrible distress with that childhood ailment knows how panicking and damaging it can be. One of my grandchildren lived in Newcastle in his early years. He recently moved to Morpeth, which is 15 or 18 miles from Newcastle. Suddenly, his health improved. The air is cleaner and the problems of pollution are fewer. He found it markedly beneficial going to a local school.

There is always a down side. My daughter moved to find some fresh air for my grandchild, but she now has to travel to Newcastle for work by motor car, whereas she previously went on a bicycle. There are swings and roundabouts. That shows the need to balance public transport with people's needs.

I have had personal experience of that. Since my election on 1 May, my constituency office has been approximately six miles from Leeds city centre. I try to use the buses. One night, as I was waiting with my assistant to catch the bus back home, we watched bus after bus going in the other direction, out of the city. After 50 minutes, not one had come back. I wondered whether it was like a Monty Python sketch and there was a gigantic hole further along the route down which all the buses were disappearing.


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The next day we wrote to the passenger transport executive to complain. We got a reply within a few days saying that the problem was caused by traffic congestion in the city centre. I found that an inadequate reply to my complaint about where the buses had gone. Only later, when one of my constituents complained about a similar event and said that empty buses had passed her by out of service, did it come to light that the bus company's solution to being behind schedule was to run the buses back out of service and empty, leaving stranded passengers all along the route into the city centre. That is an idiotic way to run a service, because it is not a service. The company could afford to do that because it was receiving substantial sums from the public purse to support the service. Passenger income did not seem to matter.

There is one element of the problem that I owe it to my constituents to mention -- the problems generated by school-related traffic. We should be most careful about what happens if and when it is felt necessary to close a school. We have been involved in several school closures, especially closures of primary schools, because numbers have fallen.

We must be careful that as a result of closures, we do not generate additional journeys, with people having to take children further by car to school. Our Victorian forefathers understood the need for schools to be within easy walking distance of their would-be pupils, and we should return to that aim.

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