Bus funding needs a total overhaul in the Spending Review to protect under-threat services for the elderly, disabled and commuters, councils say.
In a major report published 26th September, the Local Government Association, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, calls for a package of funding reforms and less red tape, allowing councils to do more to support bus services.
The Spending Review call comes as latest figures show that up to 500 bus routes nationwide are already being reduced or altered every year and about half of those are being stopped altogether.
Funding for the concessionary bus scheme, providing free off-peak travel for elderly and disabled residents, has been reduced by the Government by 27 per cent over the last five year despite our ageing population increasing demand.
It means councils are being forced to subsidise the scheme at the cost of other discretionary subsidised bus services – such as free peak travel, community transport services, reduced fares and post 16 school transport – and other local services.
Councils are working with residents to try and find innovative solutions such as organising car-sharing schemes, dial-a-ride or community transport initiatives and joining up services like home-to-school transport and other bus services.
Bus users in more isolated rural communities, many of whom have already seen services reduced, are likely to bear the brunt of any future budget reductions, councils are warning.
The LGA is calling for the concessionary fares scheme to be funded in full. Handing control over the Bus Service Operators’ Grant – a fuel duty rebate paid directly to bus operators by the Government – to councils would also allow them to get better value for money by targeting services that really need subsidising.
Insufficient funding is not the only issue for councils. The LGA is also calling for councils to be given more powers to:
- Enforce moving traffic violations, such as illegal U-turns and box junction offences, to tackle congestion hotspots that delay bus services and to be granted the option of franchising services – both measures are already available in London where bus usage has bucked the recent trend of decline.
- Introduce area-wide ticket schemes, so that passengers are not ripped off by having to buy more than one ticket if they need to change buses.
- Remove licenses from rogue operators who run substandard vehicles and unreliable services, undermining reputable bus companies. Traffic Commissioners, who are appointed by the Government, should also be able to do this.
- Be given access better information about fares (bus operators are currently under no obligation to provide fares information other than on the bus itself) and about how their services are performing. These rights are already enjoyed by bus passengers in London and rail passengers throughout the UK.
LGA Transport spokesman Cllr Peter Box said:
“Councils are doing everything they can to support bus users but are fast reaching a tipping point. There are limited opportunities to make further savings and reductions in funding for concessionary bus fares continues to impact on many services for the elderly, disabled and commuters, for whom bus routes are a lifeline.
“With up to 500 bus routes being reduced, altered or stopped altogether every year, this funding shortfall needs to be addressed urgently as part of the Spending Review.
“Councils are being forced to dip into their discretionary pots to prop up statutory services. Local authorities are trying to dig deep to subsidise transports costs for their communities while struggling to protect vital services like caring for the elderly, filling potholes and collecting bins. As a result, many across the country are reluctantly taking difficult decisions to scale back services and review subsidised routes.
“What is needed is 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 stretched council budgets.”