local bus service in england rural transport

Rural bus services continue to decline as urban routes scoop up central funding

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Passenger numbers on rural bus services have fallen to ‘historic lows’ with the number of services being cut across England, a report has found.

The County Councils Network (CCN), which represents England’s local authorities, has undertaken a comprehensive review of rural bus services. It found that more than one in four routes have vanished over the last decade with passenger numbers dropping to a "historic low".

The study concludes that many services in rural areas were already in state of "managed decline" but this trend has accelerated since the pandemic.

The Department for Transport introduced its National Bus Strategy in 2021 which included plans to introduce new routes and simplify fares. It also created a requirement for local transport authorities to adopt partnerships with private bus operators or establish a franchising scheme.

But the CCN report said that the “much-vaunted” strategy has done little to address the decline in the number of services.

This is because two-thirds of the government’s £1.1bn to address the issue went to urban areas. These areas benefited from hundreds of millions more in investment despite witnessing the smallest declines in passenger numbers in the lead up the pandemic, the report shows.

For the first time, the report reveals that the 37 largest county and rural authorities – representing almost half of England’s population – submitted Bus Service Improvement Plan bids which collectively totalled £3.6bn, but these councils only received 10 per cent (£363m) of the funding requested, with urban areas receiving £739m.

With the government’s strategy failing to match CCN councils’ ambitions, local authority leaders have said that the government must revisit the funding made available to invest in making buses more punctual, greener and reliable in county areas, as well as making permanent the £2 fare cap to drive up usage.

When a route is deemed unviable from a commercial operator, as many rural routes are, local authorities step in and subsidise the service. However, the analysis reveals that councils in rural and county areas have a £420m shortfall in their local transport budgets which makes it hard for them to continue subsidising such services.

Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst, CCN transport spokesperson, said: “Buses have long been a lifeline for many people in rural areas, particularly the elderly and the disadvantaged. But outside of London and the cities, far too many services are at best, patchy, and at worst, non-existent. The pandemic has accelerated the trend of declining usage and journey are now at a historic low.

“We had high hopes for the government’s National Bus Strategy, especially as the support for services during the pandemic was comprehensive. But many county areas were left felt let down with their funding allocations, with the majority of fund being directed to the places that arguably needed the least help.

“As their bids for the funding showed, councils have serious ambitions when it comes to improving and modernising their bus services. But it is increasingly likely that reversing the decline in passengers is a challenge to picked up by a future government, and today’s report sets out a number of recommendations to transform local services. Failure to act will keep buses in county areas in a state of managed decline, with consequences for our residents.”

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