The future of many bus services looks bleak

Cuts to budgets mean entire networks of buses have disappeared.

Cuts to budgets mean entire networks of buses have disappeared

Buses are easily the most commonly used type of public transport in the country, but services and funding are being lost at an alarming rate. New research carried out by Campaign for Better Transport shows that half of local authorities in England and Wales have cut funding for buses in the current financial year, with over £9m wiped off support for services.

That brings the running total of cuts since 2010 to £44m, with more than 2000 routes reduced or withdrawn entirely.

Local authority-supported bus services are different from other buses. They exist not to turn a profit, but to offer a service where the need for a bus has been identified but no commercially run route exists. Consequently, they are relied on by the large number of people for whom the bus is the only option – for example, people on low incomes, young people who are in education or training, older people and those with disabilities.

For many in these groups, buses are a lifeline that connects them to the wider world. It links them to job opportunities and social lives. It helps them to stay active and get to vital services like shops and doctors.

But year on year cuts to budgets mean entire networks of these buses have now disappeared, leaving many communities with little public transport and in some cases none at all.

The main reason for the loss of these vital services is budget cuts. The Local Government Association reports that authorities are on track to lose 40 per cent of their spending power during this Parliament. With responsibilities like social care eating up a high percentage of the remaining money, anything which is not a legal requirement – such as funding buses – is losing out.

The impact on the ground is often severe. North Yorkshire has cut 90 services this year and is considering axing another £2.5m from its buses budget from April. Cumbria (cutting 68 services), Herefordshire (44), Dorset (42), Nottinghamshire (38) and Worcestershire (27) are among others making deep reductions in support this year. For a town like Shepton Mallet in Somerset this means evening and Sunday services have disappeared, and from April all Saturday services will go, too.

In other parts of the country the end game of this dismal process has already been played out. Seven local authorities have stopped supporting buses entirely. Here, if you can’t drive, getting around is increasingly difficult.

Local campaigns have sprung up across the country to protect services. Many have received substantial public support, with tens of thousands signing petitions and responding to consultations. There are growing calls for buses to be re-regulated to ensure public transport is regarded as a public service. Especially in cities, this may be part of the answer. But the big issue remains how services are funded. New forms of support for buses will be needed however services are organised.

To this end, we are calling for trial an approach called ‘Total Transport’. This Dutch idea works by bringing together all the transport services currently commissioned by different public bodies – for example inter-hospital link services, social services transport to take older people to day centres, and transport for children with special needs to and between schools. Having these resources pooled allows government to commission and support transport as efficiently as possible.

Government also needs to fully fund Concessionary Passes. Nearly 10 million people hold concessionary bus passes, helping to tackle social isolation, encouraging healthy active lives, and contributing to local and national economies. But the scheme is not fully funded by government, leaving bus operators to cover any shortfall.

As well as resolving this, government needs to standardise and enhance concessionary travel schemes for younger people, especially those in education, on apprenticeships or out of work.

Finally, we need a Connectivity Fund bringing together the wide range of departments who benefit from decent public transport provision. Work and Pensions, Department of Health, Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs and Department for Education are among those who should contribute to a ring-fenced pot for local government to support bus services aiming to provide £500m in bus funding.

This will pay for itself by reducing the cost of other public services and by supporting economic growth.

The objective should be not just to end the haemorrhaging of funding for buses, but to ensure that all communities have access to viable, useful public transport. Without initiatives like these, the future of many of the buses supported by local authorities looks bleak indeed.

Andrew Allen is a policy analyst at Campaign for Better Transport. Follow them on Twitter

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