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14.03.17

Bus Services Bill last hope to fix threat of ‘transport deserts’

Deep funding cuts have pushed councils to reduce or entirely withdraw over 500 bus routes across England and Wales in 2016-17, meaning some areas will soon become “transport deserts” where there is no public transport at all, campaigners have warned – urging Parliament to fix this with the Bus Services Bill.

The latest quarterly bus statistics, published today by the Department for Transport, show that bus mileage in England has decreased by 2% since last year, whilst mileage on council-supported services outside the capital has dropped by a whopping 12%.

A separate investigation by the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) piled on concerns: nearly £30m has been cut from local authority-supported bus funding in the last financial year, translating to a 11% reduction in England and 7% in Wales, the pressure group found.

It also revealed that since 2010, over £100m, or 33%, has been slashed from council bus funding, with almost 3,000 bus services suffering cutbacks and withdrawals. Almost 70% of councils have cut down on their spend on supported bus provision this year, while 10 authorities already had no supported services at all as of 2016-17.

Another four councils – Middlesbrough, Lancashire, Isle of Wight and Torbay Borough – have made 100% cuts to bus subsidies in 2016-17. Lancashire County Council made the biggest cut this year, slashing their entire bus supported budget worth £7m.

Cllr Martin Tett, the LGA’s transport spokesman, stated that councils know how important buses are for communities, but reiterated that authorities have suffered a 40% core funding reduction over previous Parliaments and are continuing to experience cash pressures.

Lianna Etkind, public transport campaigner at the CBT, added that these funding reductions come on top of cuts to school transport and the underfunding of free pensioner travel, all of which “threaten the viability of whole bus networks and will lead to ‘transport deserts’ in some rural and suburban areas where there is no public transport at all”.

“This decline is not inevitable though. With the Bus Services Bill currently going through Parliament, there is hope that powers in the bill will help local authorities to better plan and set standards for their bus networks, improving people's access to jobs, services and education,” she argued.

“We urge the government to ensure that all local authorities have the full range of powers at their disposal; and to put in place a plan to ensure buses have the funding they need. The government needs to understand the vital role buses play in the economy, the environment and to wider society and to commit to protecting bus services, not just in towns and cities but in rural areas as well.”

Cllr Tett agreed, explaining that councils have long called for more freedom to improve services and that it is vital that the Bill recognises this.

“It is also crucial the concessionary fares scheme, which provides a lifeline for our most vulnerable residents, is fully funded to ease the pressure on stretched council budgets and protect cherished bus services,” he added.

“Years of underfunding of the concessionary fares scheme have forced councils to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers' money to subsidise it, jeopardising councils' ability to support vital routes as they make savings while struggling to protect vital services like adult social care, protecting children, filling potholes and collecting bins.

“It is also essential that the Bus Service Operators’ Grant – a fuel duty rebate paid directly to bus operators by the Government – should also be handed to councils.”

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