'Demise of rural buses due to false economy'

Introduced in 2008, the Senior Bus Pass (English National Concessionary Travel Pass or ENCT), available to anyone of retirement age living in England, has, by any standards, proved a huge success, one of the enduring legacies of Gordon Brown's period as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

By 2013 it was generating something like 1.2 billion journeys on local buses throughout England, at a cost to the Exchequer of £2bn. An authoritative, independent study undertaken by campaign group Greener Journeys, in partnership with accountants KPMG, calculated that for every £1 of taxpayers’ money spent, at least £2.87 is generated in benefits.

These include huge value to users and NHS savings in terms of physical and mental health and wellbeing improvement, as older people get out and about, meet other people and spend money in local shops, businesses and tourist attractions.

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For older or disabled people on low incomes, the free bus pass is a lifeline, giving them access to services and facilities otherwise denied to them.

But there are also key non-user benefits, in terms of better-off retired people with cars choosing to take the “free” bus into the busy market town, thereby freeing up another parking place, causing less congestion. Motoring organisations ought to be vigorously supporting the bus pass as a means of creating more road space for more essential journeys.

There is little doubt too, that if ENCTs were withdrawn, most rural bus services would disappear overnight, leaving huge areas of England’s countryside without any form of public transport apart from school buses. But why are rural bus services facing crisis with a record number of smaller bus companies going bankrupt or closing, and larger companies cutting back on rural operations?

The answer lies in a political betrayal. When the ENCT scheme was first set up, local bus operators were promised that they would be “no worse, nor no better off” as a result of ENCT. Indeed for a time, after 2008, ENCT caused a mini-boom, with half-empty buses enjoying a revival of fortune when at off-peak times (when passes are eligible) new passengers came flooding onto services even in deep rural areas.

Then came austerity. The first blow was when cash given to local authorities for local transport was no longer “ringfenced”. This meant that local council committees could switch money intended to support buses to other equally important rival needs such as social care. Secondly, the somewhat arcane and complex formula for working out how operators were to be reimbursed could be interpreted by various authorities in various ways.

Instead of giving perhaps half or two thirds the cost of a single journey (allowing for some traffic generation), actual payments from local authorities became as low as £1 per journey for a single trip where the ordinary fare was £5 or £6 – less than 20 per cent of actual costs.

The entire system is acutely biased against rural areas. In a city such as Leeds, Bradford or York, there are heavy morning commuter flows to work, school and college. These passengers pay peak full fares that cover most of the bus operation. Off-peak journeys, at least in daytime (though not evenings and Sundays), are relatively marginal to provide, so that even just £1 for every extra passenger occupying an otherwise empty seat is a bonus.

In rural areas, the opposite is true. If you want to have a decent job and live in a village or small town, you need to be able to drive. Many jobs are no longer centralised and shifts work against standard bus times. But if you live in a city with good train and bus networks, you have much more choice.

However, in rural areas, most early-morning and late-afternoon buses are lightly loaded with fare-paying passengers. The bulk of passengers are older residents, many of whom have retired to picturesque villages in the Dales, Wolds or Moors, and use the bus for a shopping, doctor’s visit or a leisure trip. This means the bulk of bus service income – up to 80 per cent in some cases – comes from ENCT reimbursement. In effect, this means that many small rural bus companies in Yorkshire are paying for the cost of a scheme which politicians are claiming to be giving to older people in order to secure their votes.

When uneconomic services have to be cut, and people who depend on these services complain to their local council, they are told it is the fault of Government cuts. When they raise the matter with their MP, he or she will tell them that the big issue that concerns most people is lack of car parking space in towns, not the plight of bus users. If pressed hard, they will take the matter up with the Department for Transport who will tell them this is a matter for local authorities to sort out. Tweedledum blames Tweedledee.

Meanwhile small bus operators are going bankrupt almost by the week, even well-established companies like Pennine Motors of Gargrave who, after 99 years serving the people of Craven, went to the wall because of low bus pass reimbursement. Several other small operators have followed. Even larger companies like East Yorkshire have had to cut services. In the Yorkshire Dales many bus services in the upper dales are now being provided by volunteers, which limits capacity to 16-seater minibuses.

Yet, with an ageing rural population, all evidence suggests that demand for buses in both rural and urban areas will continue, and may well grow as retirement incomes fall and cars become less affordable. But if current trends continue there will be no rural bus services in most of England in another decade. Small bus operators not able to cross-subside their activities from profitable urban routes will have disappeared. Jobs will be lost, and rural communities isolated.

But compared with vast sums of public money being used for road building and maintenance, for car parks and congestion measures, the additional money required to give rural bus operators fair reimbursement for the bus pass is trivial. Not only is it a matter of fairness (accepting the pass is a legal obligation) it should be seen as investment not subsidy. To go back to the KPMG figures, where else can you show that for every £1 spent, £2.87 is delivered into the wider UK economy. So why are politicians failing our rural communities?

Colin Speakman is a writer and countryside campaigner. He is also vice president of the Yorkshire Dales Society.