Martin Abrams: Allowing rural bus services to wither would be a disaster

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THE Conservative MP Anne McIntosh wrote in the Yorkshire Post last week about the threat to buses in North Yorkshire. The County Council is planning to cut £2m a year from their from their support for bus services as part of efforts to manage massive year on year cuts to their budget.

In her piece, Anne McIntosh wrote persuasively about the importance of rural buses. But she goes on to suggest that the best way to protect these essential services is to enable pensioners to pay for them. This is an understandable reaction, but it misses both the point of local authority supported buses, and the nature of the threats they face. Miss McIntosh and her fellow MPs need to be looking for more long-term answers and pushing national Government to put buses on a secure financial footing.

Rural buses provide a lifeline for thousands in the county and across the country. Councils support buses where a service is needed, but a commercial operator would not run one. They connect communities, give access to vital services and to employment, education and training opportunities. Twenty per cent of bus services in England and Wales fall into this category, supporting areas where if you do not have a car, you would otherwise not be able to get around.

Encouraging pensioners to contribute to these “social” buses won’t be enough to finance them. With council budgets likely to be under pressure for some years to come, the need for savings will inevitably lead to an acceleration in the number of bus services disappearing. Campaign for Better Transport research shows that 2014 will be the fourth consecutive year of bus cuts, and in North Yorkshire the council has been open that more cuts will be necessary next year.

These cuts would be highly socially regressive, with the loss of services being felt most harshly by those with no other means of getting around. Across the country, there are around 9.7 million older and disabled concessionary bus passes. Each is used an average of 105 times a year with pensioners on the lowest incomes most likely to use their bus pass. Many regard it as essential for common journeys for shopping, to visit family and friends and to access healthcare.

Moreover, research shows that the bus pass offers excellent value for money. It contributes to a more active lifestyle among older people, with research finding that older people who used public transport had reduced their likelihood of being obese, a condition which costs the NHS over £10bn a year. Free bus travel is also helps tackle older people’s biggest fear – loneliness. Research published in 2012 showed that older people felt that they had earned their bus pass and that using it made them feel part of everyday life.

It is easy to forget that many younger people also rely on the bus. Around a million 16- to 24- year-olds are not in employment, education or training. Many are unable to afford to go to job interviews or even attend a job centre because of the rising price of bus fares and withdrawal of services. If the Government wants to reduce unemployment, it needs to make sure that public transport is available and affordable to young people and other jobseekers, and better access to buses is part of the solution.

As the council and MPs have found, bus cuts provoke strong feelings. The council’s decision to ‘call in’ the £2m cuts came after a huge public outcry and local campaigners standing up for their bus services. One councillor opposed to the cuts has even suggested that residents stage a council tax strike. Nor is North Yorkshire an isolated affair. In Worcestershire, an incredible 8,500 people responded to the council’s consultation on cutting all £3m of the council’s bus funding. Similar strength of feeling in Lancashire and Dorset has led to significant U-turns.

Buses offer excellent value for money, but they desperately need committed long-term support. Rather than passing the buck to local authorities, central Government should set out the role it expects buses to play and fund local authorities properly to deliver it. This should be based around providing decent access to hospitals, colleges, employment areas and other important destinations.

We should take action to grow passenger numbers, not manage their decline. This should include concessionary travel for younger people and tax breaks for those who rely on the bus to get to work. The money required should come from all those parts of Government that need decent bus services to meet their targets and objectives – the Departments of Health, Education and Work & Pensions should all be part of this.

Allowing our bus services to wither away would be a disaster. Encouraging pensioners to pay for their bus travel won’t solve the problem and will rouse resentment among pensioners. Instead, MPs like Anne McIntosh should be pushing for long term consistent support for bus services from national Government.

• Martin Abrams is public transport campaigner with the Campaign for Better Transport.