The situation for supported bus services is bleak and further cuts will have devastating consequences, writes Martin Abrams of Campaign for Better Transport

Local authorities are cutting support for buses hand over fist. Year on year reductions in support are hitting services and leaving vulnerable groups isolated. With further cuts to local authority budgets and wider public spending to come, we risk whole networks of bus services disappearing.

In December, Campaign for Better Transport published the findings of our third annual survey on supported bus services. It is based on Freedom of Information requests sent to all Local Transport Authorities in England and for the first time including Wales as well.

The outcome is the most comprehensive report into local authority spending on supported bus services conducted since the recession in 2008. Despite seeing the ‘green shoots’ of an economic recovery, the situation for supported bus services is getting increasingly bleak. The key finding of our research is that since last year there has been an overall reduction in local authority spending on supported buses of £10m with nearly half of authorities reducing funding in the current year.

South East England has seen the highest number of cuts to bus services with 46 services cut or withdrawn in 2013-14, meaning that since 2011, a total of 160 services in the region have been cut or withdrawn. Every region except the North West has seen significant cuts in spending.

Things are about to get even worse, with a number of large authorities, including Lancashire, Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, planning to make deep cuts. The uncertain future of supported buses is underlined by Worcestershire’s plans to remove all support for buses from next year, cutting all £3m that it currently allocates.

This does not just affect supported buses. Overall passenger numbers have fallen every year since 2008/09. In December, the Department for Transport reported that passenger journeys in England had decreased by 1.4% compared to the previous financial year. Outside London, the decline was 2.5% with the biggest fall coming in metropolitan areas. The loss of supported buses could affect the overall viability of the networks which remain. With the future of the Bus Service Operators’ Grant (BSOG) still very much in the balance, it forms part of a broader threat to bus services.

Not everyone agrees that the storm clouds are gathering. Marc Morgan-Huws writing in Passenger Transport took issue with the emphasis of Campaign for Better Transport’s research. He argued that rather than seeing a crisis, operators should accept the loss of socially important services as the new reality and focus on commercially viable routes instead. Operators who continue to rely on income from local authorities would risk going to the wall.

We know that bus operators clearly need to make realistic decisions about their future business plans. Nor is it our belief that most local authorities are blithely cutting support for bus services because they do not understand their importance. Rather, we argue that the crisis comes from the wider impact of so many services disappearing. The overall fall in bus patronage has happened at the same time as a significant decrease in bus mileage. People cannot take the bus if there is no bus there to take.

Buses are traditionally looked on as a local issue and rarely make national headlines. Yet they are important; two-thirds of public transport journeys are made by bus, making buses the most frequently used mode of public transport. They support local economies by getting people to work, schools, training, shops and public services.

Supported buses serve communities where no alternative routes exist. If they were all removed, it would mean over 20% of bus services in England being cut. This would negatively affect large parts of the country, creating large public transport deserts. Moreover, it would be highly socially regressive, with the cuts being felt most harshly by those with no other means of getting around.

First, it would leave many older and disabled people isolated. There are around 9.7 million older and disabled concessionary bus passes in England. Each is used an average of 105 times a year. Pensioners on the lowest incomes are those most likely to use their bus pass. Many regard it as essential for common journeys for shopping, to visit family and friends and to access healthcare.

This has big knock-on benefits. It contributes to a more active lifestyle among older people, with Imperial College research finding that older people who used public transport had reduced their likelihood of being obese. This makes a contribution to reducing disability and physical inactivity, which cost the NHS over £10bn a year. Free bus travel is also important to social well-being. In 2012, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published research showing that older people felt that they had earned their bus pass and that using it made them feel part of everyday life and defended against loneliness.

While support for concessionary fares for the over-65s is ring-fenced by government, similar support for young people between 16 and 19 is discretionary. In our report, Transport Barriers Facing Young People, we found that it is now more difficult for young people to access jobs and education than it was 15 years ago.

The removal of discretionary fare concessions for young people by local authorities and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) by central government, while bus fares have increased by an average of 33% over the last seven years, have added up to compromise the ability of young people to afford public transport to access education.

Only a third of local authorities outside London currently offer concessionary travel to young people. Yet it is this age group more than any other who rely on buses. Around a million 16-24 year-olds are not in employment, education or training. Many are unable to afford to go to job interviews or even attend a job centre because of the rising price of bus fares and withdrawal of services.

This situation is in no one’s interests, least of all young people themselves. The government needs to make sure that public transport is available and affordable to young people and other jobseekers, and better access to buses is an obvious part of the solution.

In short, supported services are disappearing at an alarming rate. It is the most vulnerable in our society who are being worst affected, with young people unable to access their place of education or training and older people left in isolation. The loss of these services will contribute to a decline in overall bus use and undermine the case for other support such as BSOG and thus the viability of the remaining networks. This is not just a problem for the bus industry, but one with big social and economic ramifications.

The political imperative to ‘do something’ is beginning to gather pace. With research like Campaign for Better Transport’s garnering significant interest from the press, the threat to our buses is finally pushing the issue into the political mainstream, not least as part of the public demand to ease the cost of living. Public consultations on buses from Dorset to North Yorkshire are garnering thousands of responses. Politicians from every party are decrying the threat to local bus services.

This all adds to the strong case for a strategic improvement in the support for buses. For this to work, commercially operated and subsidised services need to go hand in hand as part of a comprehensive national network. In the short term, there is a case for the government to establish a fighting fund, to which local authorities can bid in order to retain services under immediate threat. Longer term financial support should be drawn from all central government departments whose objectives rely on decent bus networks, most notably the Department for Health and the Department for Work and Pensions. The vital role that buses play for young people should be recognised by the introduction of a national, free concessionary travel scheme for under 25s.

In wider terms, there is need for a package of land use planning and transport improvements which encourage jobs to be created and retained in locations served by public transport. Government also needs to support the roll-out of real-time technology, smart ticketing and data access across bus contracts to make door-to-door journeys a reality.

While the country faces a very difficult financial situation, the economic case for funding buses is clear. It is a false economy to make short term savings where longer term impacts are devastating. With a general election on the horizon in 2015 we will be doing all we can to highlight the crisis of bus provision in England and Wales to key decision makers and put buses at the forefront of our campaigning.

 

About the author:

Martin Abrams is a public transport campaigner for the Campaign for Better Transport.

 

This article, and many others, appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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