A recently published report reveals the dramatic decline in public spending on public bus services across Dorset.
‘The information about funding for supported buses and withdrawn routes has been collected by contacting all 82 local transport authorities in England as well as the combined authorities responsible for public transport within large urban areas.
We also contacted all 22 single-tier authorities in Wales. Freedom of Information requests under the Freedom of information Act 2000 were issued to all local transport authorities in England and Wales and all combined authorities.
The information requested this year asked for the actual spend in the previous financial year 2016-17 and the planned budget in the current financial year 2017-18. Figures previously requested in 2017 for the budgeted spend in the 2016-2017 financial year will have differences with the actual spend figures we requested in 2018.
In previous years this report did not adjust for inflation.
As we approach a decade of collecting this data it is now appropriate to compare spending at current prices. All local authorities responded to our freedom of information requests.’
It has slipped from £5,801,540 in 2010 to £1,200,000 for 2018/19. This reflects almost an 80% drop over an 8 year period in which many services, especially in rural areas have been cut. The consequence for many people, especially the elderly is one of isolation and a rise in mental health issues. In particular lone adults notably single and widowed are suffering the most.
Overall spending for the south west has seen a 50% drop.
The story behind the statistics
Since 2010, bus services across the country have seen significant reductions in public funding. These cuts have come from three different directions:
● Bus Service Operators Grant, which goes to all bus operators was cut by 20% in 2012-13, and has not increased since
● Funding for local authorities has been cut in general, and this has fed through to cuts in support for bus services, which have less legal protection than other local authority services
● The free travel scheme for pensioners and the disabled is underfunded by the Government, meaning that operators are having to carry people for free without proper funding to reflect the cost of this.
In addition, buses have faced increased traffic congestion which adds to the costs of operation. While most bus services are run by commercial bus companies, the services supported by local councils are in most cases vital to local communities and the many people who rely on buses to get to work, school, shops, healthcare etc, as well as giving access to the countryside for those without cars.
These supported services often run at times (evenings and weekends) and to places (such as rural and suburban areas) that have no other public transport. Campaign for Better Transport has been researching the trends in these supported services since 2010. We have found that local authorities have taken very different approaches to supporting local bus services. Some have cut all support entirely – this year, for example, Staffordshire and Blackburn with Darwen have both cut all or nearly all support for services.
However, other authorities have protected their services and in a few cases, like Lancashire, authorities have actually increased funding again having made cuts in earlier years. Some of those that have made cuts are starting from a high base, so the impacts are less than in places with smaller cuts but starting from a previously low base. Mostly, however, we are seeing a slow reduction in bus subsidy and bus services across England and Wales, and from the questions we’ve asked about the budget for this year this is expected to continue.
We’ve set out the figures – both the cuts in the last year, and also the longer term trends since 2010. But these cold hard numbers translate into real impacts on real lives – our ‘Save our Buses’ campaign hears from people who are now isolated and find access to basic services difficult or expensive or both. It is not just sparsely populated rural areas who are affected. Across the country, smaller towns now find themselves in the firing line, caught in a spiral of lost bus services and other damaging trends such as struggling high streets.
We make below some recommendations to address these problems; we argue that the decline in supported bus services can be reversed and that the Government should take more interest in the issue. For the reasons we’ve set out in the foreword, buses are important, to wider Government policy not just to their users.
Since 2010, we have been charting a steady decline in the bus services supported by local authorities in England and Wales. This decline has continued in the last year and over 3000 bus routes have been withdrawn or reduced over that period, with signs of more to come. As we’ve said, this translates to real problems on the ground, where people – and in the worst cases whole communities – are being left isolated, and this contributes to poverty, social exclusion and increased car dependence. But this isn’t inevitable. First, some local authorities have not made cuts, and have adopted creative ways to manage bus services, sometimes as part of wider transport strategies. In some places local authorities need recognise how important local bus services are, and give them a higher priority in funding decisions. Secondly, and crucially, action by central Government is needed.
There are things that the Government and the Welsh Assembly Government can do to reverse this decline. In practice, this means:
● Develop a National Investment Strategy for buses and coaches We recommend that the Government develops a National Bus and Coach Investment Strategy with long term funding and targets to reverse the decline in bus use and to increase the use of buses and coaches. Buses are the only form of transport in England not to have a long term investment strategy. The railways, the main roads, aviation, cycling and walking all have long term strategies. These allow the Government to set targets and performance standards for each transport mode, to enable investment and to bring together funding, regulation and policy. If buses had such a strategy it would help bring together funding, set a long term policy framework and link buses into other Government policies – for example within planning policies and the management of trunk roads. It may be said that buses are a matter for local government, but the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy shows that a national strategy can help focus funding and policy across Government, and can support local investment. A national strategy with long term funding could also help investment in zero emission vehicles. For this and other reasons, it needs to encompass coaches too.
● Use the Bus Services Act powers The Bus Services Act, which was passed last year, contains new powers and provisions which should help improve bus services in England in various ways. It includes provision for ‘open data’ on real time service running and on fares, for on-bus audible and visual information, and for multi-operator ticketing. It also enables various types of partnerships between local bus operators and local authorities, and also allows local authorities to franchise bus services. We recommend that local authorities review the Act and the opportunities it offers for their areas in terms of improving bus services. We have produced a guide to the Act to help authorities and communities work out what it can do for them and make use of the powers it contains.5 We also recommend that the Government monitors use of the powers in the Act and identifies and seeks to overcome barriers to using them.
● Go further with ‘Total Transport’ – bringing together and co-ordinating funding It is estimated that in England around £2bn a year of public funding goes to transport services, but this comes from a number of different agencies and different parts of local authorities. Home to school transport, non-emergency patient transport, and staff transport contracts form part of this £2bn, alongside the support for local bus services and Bus Service Operators Grant. The Government funded 37 ‘total transport’ pilot projects from 2015 to 2017 to investigate ways to bring together these different funding streams and make better use of them. These pilots have shown that there is potential to integrate transport contracts. We recommend that the Government builds on these pilots and develops a longer term Total Transport funding stream allowing for ‘invest to save’ projects joining up transport commissioning. Local authorities should also audit all transport spending, contracts and provision in their areas and identify ways to join them up.
● Introduce new and smarter funding for buses We recommend that the Government consider new and smarter sources of funding for bus services. The national investment strategy can act as a framework – it can bring together and make better use of the £2bn public spending on bus services across Government. It can also in principle be used to integrate taxis into public transport networks, though this will require changes in legislation, and to integrate buses and coaches into new transport provision and new technologies. There is however, a strong general economic case for increased investment in local buses and local public transport. In fact the Government has recognised this in principle, with the ‘Transforming Cities Fund’ introduced in the Spring 2018 Budget. This came partly as a result of recommendations from the National Infrastructure Commission, which suggested that in economic terms intra-urban transport was as important as inter-urban transport yet had received much more limited funding and attention. 6 At the other end of the spectrum, there is a strong case for small-scale funding to help community transport initiatives and social enterprises, including ‘invest to save’ and kickstart funding to get projects up and running. Even very small scale funds could make a difference here – one community enterprise has suggested that a £1m fund ringfenced for public transport services for the 10 English national parks would make a huge difference in the provision of transport for residents and visitors in the Parks. All this depends on recognising the wider value of good bus services. Current legislation requires councils to assess the need for public transport and show that this need has been provided for. 7 We have previously called for a Connectivity Fund to bring together and ringfence funding for local transport, and we believe this should be considered in any review of bus funding.
Ultimately, policies and funding need to give people and communities the transport services to get to the jobs, education and other services they need to access.