Bus subsidy funding continues to fall across england, as do passenger journeys

Source: PSE - Oct/Nov 2015

PSE’s David Stevenson looks at how funding for subsidised bus services has been reduced over the last Parliament and what action PTEs are taking to maintain vital services.

Nearly all public transport executive bodies outside London have had to reduce their funding for subsidised bus services in the last three financial years, figures obtained by PSE have confirmed.

An FoI request to the six full members of the Passenger Transport Executive Group (pteg), which serve more than 11 million people in England’s largest city-regions outside the capital, revealed that all but one of the strategic transport bodies (Nexus)  have had to cut funding.

Even Nexus, which is proud of its record of protecting subsidised bus services in Tyne & Wear, is having to draw on its reserves to continue to do so – “which is only sustainable in the short term”.

On behalf of the North East Combined Authority, Nexus has also drawn up a plan for a bus franchising model in Tyne & Wear, a Quality Contracts Scheme, which is under review by the Traffic Commissioner. A further decision on the funding levels for secured bus routes will be taken once that process has been decided.

The other pteg members – Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), Merseytravel, West Yorkshire Combined Authority, Centro and South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) – have had to implement year-on-year reductions, with the PTEs undertaking a variety of initiatives to maintain services.

Focus on need

Cllr Liam Robinson, chair of Merseytravel, which has seen its bus subsidy funding fall from £19m to £16.5m, told us it has been putting its resources “where there is most need”, primarily “withdrawing services where there are very few people using them”.

But the budget constraints have helped it to work smarter. Rather than simply cutting bus services, it has worked with operators to deliver them on a “commercial or semi-commercial basis”, in many cases. “With the operators, we are currently looking at how we can transform the bus offer in the Liverpool City Region,” said Cllr Robinson. “Together these measures will ensure the bus network is successful and sustainable and will ultimately reduce the need for Merseytravel to directly subsidise bus services.”

Government figures show a fall of 27 million in bus journeys taken in England in the year to March 2015, to 4.65 billion. Outside London, journeys are down 37% since 1985-6, and have essentially flatlined over the past decade. Growth in London is slowing, too, after a rapid rise from the late 1990s to around 2010.

But fares rose an average 3.3% this year, much faster than inflation.

Swingeing cuts

Martin Abrams of the Campaign for Better Transport said that since 2010, the government has made swingeing year-on-year cuts in support for buses. “These statistics show the impact of those cuts with bus services disappearing, isolating whole communities and leaving ever more people unable to get to education, jobs and other basic services,” he added.

SYPTE, which has had to cut its bus subsidy funding from £8.57m to £7.26m, has only half the staff it had five years ago. Its interim director general David Young told us that “careful policy setting” has helped it limit the impact cuts to its own budget have had on supported bus services in South Yorkshire. More than 300 services are subsidised, but through objectives drawn in Sheffield City Region’s Devolution Deal for “phased bus improvements” across each local authority area, SYPTE has been able to negotiate “commercial operation” of some supported routes.

“The resultant, more efficient network has enabled operators to reduce the cost of multi-operator fares by up to 23% and forms the basis for future investment by the private sector – encouraging bus travel and helping to protect our residents from the impact further cuts to SYPTE’s revenue budget could have,” said Young.

It is working with the city-region’s combined authority to secure further devolved transport and funding control from the government, which will help safeguard the future of supported buses.

Howard Hartley, head of bus at TfGM, told PSE that like all public bodies, “we have been under huge pressure to make savings as a result of national spending cuts”. TfGM has done a “case-by-case” review of many bus journeys it pays for, and has been able to protect some services by engaging with bus operators to encourage them to consider running the bus journeys that show the “greatest commercial potential”.

“In the longer term, bus franchising will present an opportunity to further tackle some of these issues,” said Hartley.

LGA transport spokesman Peter Box said there needs to be a “total overhaul” of the way buses are run and funded as part of the Spending Review, to protect cherished bus services and ease the pressure on council budgets.

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