Cash-strapped councils continue to slash bus support

2019 - a challenging year for buses

Financial support for local bus services from councils in mainland Britain outside London has fallen by almost a third since 2010/11, according to a new survey of local authorities.

Published last week by the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers (ATCO), the survey shows that the local authorities provided an average of just £4.61 per head for buses in 2017/2018 against a peak of £6.74 in 2010/2011.

Despite bus operators reducing the prices councils pay for contracts to run socially necessary bus services for the tenth year running (an average of 2.6% less in 2017/2018 than in the previous year), the money available from local authority transport budgets fell, with more than a quarter (27%) of authorities cutting support for bus services in 2017/18.

The report estimates that 2018/19 budgets need to increase by 2.3% simply to maintain levels of public transport already considered inadequate by the communities in many areas, both rural and urban.

ATCO’s report shows that one reason for the continuing decline in local bus use charted in Department of Transport statistics is that increasingly it is only in larger urban areas and along inter-urban routes, where most services operate commercially, with little or no local authority support, that current levels of bus services are sufficient to allow reasonable levels of mobility. In contrast, ATCO argues that local bus services are “an endangered species” in many rural areas and residential suburbs not lying on the core commercial networks.

“The results from our latest annual survey of prices, expenditure, competition and performance in local authority passenger transport services highlight the almost impossible struggle that councils face to keep passenger transport services for those that most need them,” said John Carr, Chair of ATCO’s Performance Group.

Despite councils having a statutory duty to provide free passes to pensioners and disabled people to use on local bus services, the number of bus services on which pass holders can use them continues to fall significantly each year. Much as councils want to see well used bus services to reduce congestion and pollution, supporting bus services financially is not a statutory duty, and councils are increasingly unable to afford to do so.

Carr commented: “Unfortunately as operators face increasing costs previously commercial services are also being withdrawn. Government restraints mean that councils can no longer afford contracts to add such services in addition to their existing commitments. If they decide that a recently commercial route needs to be replaced even in truncated form they will have to reduce support to other routes. Many councils have considered the option of withdrawing all support for bus services and several have actually done so”.

ATCO is meanwhile warning that Community Transport “can no longer be a panacea”.

For over 20 years, government ministers of all major parties have argued that where the use of buses was considered insufficient to support conventional bus services, Community Transport operators may offer an affordable alternative. Many such services have been developed using the special provisions of Section 19 and Section 22 Permits designed to allow Community Transport Operators to provide local services for hire and reward without having to bear all of the costs associated with running networks of conventional bus routes.

Community Transport operators are often charities and many have been assisted by grants from either central or local government or both. The rules governing operations using these permits were abruptly revised in 2017 so that both Community Transport Operators and councils have been faced with having to review their use. ATCO fears that this could precipitate an even faster reduction in the availability of any form of passenger transport services in areas of most need, particularly for rural councils. ATCO’s 2018 survey shows that in 2017/18 expenditure by councils on non-conventional public transport services (largely Community Transport) fell by over 10%.

“I cannot imagine what elderly or disabled persons think when it is explained that, because of a seemingly arcane change to the interpretation of regulations, the little Community Bus or shared car that replaced the conventional buses some time ago is no longer available,” said Carr.

About the Author

This post was written by Robert Jack. Robert is Managing Editor and Publisher of Passenger Transport. He has worked as a journalist, editor and publisher in the passenger transport sector for 18 years. He has played a key role in many transport-related conferences and events.

Robert Jack

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