‘Buses in crisis’

New research by the interest group, Campaign for Better Transport, has shown how entire networks of bus services are at risk of collapse. The report ‘Buses in crisis’ shows 47% of local authorities reducing their support for buses for 2013 with a number threatening to remove all support in the next financial year.

Public Transport Campaigner, Campaign for Better Transport, Martin Abrams, said, ‘Cuts to bus services are now reaching critical levels. We have seen services lost year on year and with further deep cuts planned next year, some authorities may stop supporting buses altogether. This is a watershed moment. If Government doesn’t take action to help support buses we will see whole networks disappear.’

Key findings from ‘Buses in Crisis’ include that in the last year there have been £17m of cuts in the budget for support buses in England. Plans for cuts of £48m have already been announced for future years and the Campaign claims there is the likelihood of more to come. It found Shropshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, West Berkshire, Hampshire, Surrey, West Sussex, Wiltshire, Dorset and Gloucestershire were all making year on year cuts of over 10% in their support for buses. Some 47% of local authorities have reduced their spend on supported bus provision this year. The study found Southend, Darlington and Hartlepool have become the first three local authorities to no longer support any bus services.

‘Buses in crisis’ claims 2014-15 will be a very difficult year for bus services. This year, many local authorities have deferred any cuts to 2014-15 to allow for the legal process of public consultations to be carried out. There are many reports of local authorities proposing to cut a high percentage, and in some cases all, of their supported bus services. Examples include Worcestershire County Council and Cumbria County Council, which are both consulting on plans to cut their entire budget for supported buses services, representing a combined total of nearly £5m.

Oxfordshire County Council has been consulting on significant cuts to 24 services, including a number in the Prime Minister’s Witney constituency. North Yorkshire County Council has been consulting on cutting £1.1m. Dorset County Council conducted a public consultation into cutting £850,000 from its supported bus budget. There was widespread public hostility to the plans with 1,200 people responding to the consultation. Essex County Council is consulting on proposals to cut £2.5m from its supported bus budgets by 2015, representing a 30% cut. Nottinghamshire County Council has announced proposals to cut £1.8m from supported bus budgets from August 2014. The West Midlands transport authority (Centro) is proposing to cut 25% of its discretionary budget by 2015. This equates to an overall £14m reduction in spending with an unconfirmed amount cut from its supported bus budgets. TfL has drawn up plans to cut 20% from the London bus subsidy by 2016-17, potentially around £65m. As previously reported in these pages (see B&CB 1252, 22 November 2013), the Welsh Government has proposed reducing the concessionary fare reimbursement for bus operators from 74% of the average fare to 46% from 1 April 2014.

With more people using buses than all other modes of public transport combined, the report argues for increased political attention to be given to buses. Martin Abrams said, ‘Politicians both locally and in Westminster need to understand how important buses are. They may not be as politically sexy as big transport projects but they make a significant difference to the economy, the environment and to wider society. It would be a disaster if whole networks were allowed to disappear.’

‘Buses in crisis’ argues for a new approach for support for buses. This would include introducing minimum access standards. Campaign for Better Transport believes there should be agreed minimum standards of access by public transport to facilities such as hospitals, colleges and areas of employment. A standard could be set by central government and implemented by local government through access plans, offering what it calls ‘travel assurance’. The organisation claims there should be a new approach to funding. Although the large majority of support for buses comes from local authorities and the DfT, the Campaign argues that buses make an important contribution to the objectives of a number of other departments, including Work and Pensions, Health and Education. In future, it believes access to key facilities and services should be paid for by pooled funding from across those departments that benefit from good bus services. It envisages that this would be ring fenced and distributed to local transport authorities.

Campaign for Better Transport claims there should be plans for long term investment. It believes this would give the industry and local authorities certainty and help plan spending on vehicles and infrastructure. It claims this would mirror the ‘control periods’ which exist for the railways and now being introduced for the English strategic road network. The Government should seek to grow the number of bus users as well, it claims, by fully funding concessionary travel for younger and older people. It believes there is also a strong case for introducing a bus bonus scheme that would give a tax break on the cost of a bus season ticket to those in work or apprenticeships.

Martin Abrams said, ‘But cuts often have a profound effect on vulnerable groups. Losing a bus service can stop young people from getting to education or training and cut older people’s lifeline to the outside world. Improving the way we support buses is essential if we want to keep people connected.’

CPT CEO, Simon Posner, said, ‘For many people buses are a lifeline providing the only viable means of accessing work, training, education and social activities. They carry close to 4.5bn passengers each year – 60% of all public transport journeys – and make a significant contribution of more than £2bn to the economy. Buses also provide 124,000 direct jobs whilst supporting many more through the supply chain. The vast majority of UK bus services continue to be operated on a commercial basis, but where local councils are suffering financial hardship, operators will work with them to try to ensure that tendered networks suffer as little as possible.’

‘There have been dire warnings in the past and there is no doubt that these are difficult economic times for all. Despite this, where operators are working in close partnership with local authorities, bus networks and services aren’t just being preserved, instead they are being further invested in and real passenger growth is being achieved. And all at no cost to the public purse. We understand the vital importance of, and are fully committed to, managing and maintaining an extensive network of services throughout these difficult times. This will not only help to keep the country moving, but aid economic recovery too.’

PTEG Support Unit Director, Jonathan Bray, said, ‘This report shows that PTEs have a better overall record of protecting their local bus services than rural counties and urban districts elsewhere. This despite our areas seeing bigger cuts in CLG funding than rural areas. However, as the cuts worsen protecting lifeline social bus services will become more difficult even for pro-bus local transport authorities like the PTEs. Despite the London-based media’s obsession with trains, cars and planes it’s buses that dominate public transport provision outside the capital. They are key to getting the workless into work, young people to education and training, and patients to medical appointments. Cutting off communities through a Beeching on the buses means more worklessness, a less skilled workforce, and higher costs for the NHS costing Government far more than it saves in the long run. Either the CLG eases off on the cutbacks or we need a dedicated funding stream for local government on buses. If not there’s a bleak future ahead for Britain’s main form of public transport and the low income households that rely on it.’

‘Buses in crisis’ is available from the Campaign for Better Transport website (www.bettertransport.org.uk/files/Buses_In_Crisis_Report_AW_PDF_09.12.13.pdf). Research in the report is based on responses to Freedom of Information requests made to all local transport authorities regarding supported buses.

By Chris Peat


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