Robert Goodwill: Rural bus solutions require effective use of resources

The Craven Link walkers' bus, above Wharfedale at Barden Tower.
The Craven Link walkers' bus, above Wharfedale at Barden Tower.
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BUSES play a vital role in our economy. More than 2.2 billion bus journeys were made on local buses in England, outside London, in 2012-13. Buses are essential for many people to get to work, to education, to doctors and to hospitals. For many, particularly those in rural areas, the bus is a lifeline and without it they would not be able to access those essential services or go shopping and socialise.

Over half of those who rely on buses outside London do not have access to a car. Customer satisfaction with bus journeys is high – 84 per cent are satisfied with their service – and under-21s make up a third of bus passengers, while use among the over-60s is increasing as a result of the national concessionary pass. Furthermore, a recent study by the University of Leeds has reinforced the importance of buses to a healthy, growing economy.

The Government remain committed to improving bus services, and expenditure on buses reflects that: this year, we will spend more than £1bn on the concessionary travel entitlement and more than £340m in direct subsidies to bus operators in England; more than £300m has been allocated to funding major bus projects in the past year; and outside London 42 per cent of the money that goes to bus operators comes from the taxpayer by one mechanism or another.

Moreover, as a local North Yorkshire MP, I am pleased that North Yorkshire County Council has received more than £5m in local sustainable transport funding in 2012-15, including for bus improvements in Harrogate and Knaresborough and to boost tourism in Whitby and the Esk valley.

The central question posed by the Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh is should pensioners be charged to use their concessionary passes? I believe that this would undermine the basic principle of the concessionary scheme, and many would probably see it as a step too far. I believe Labour MPs would also underline how the principle of the concessionary scheme should be written in stone, not undermined.

As with other benefits, such as the free television licence and the winter fuel allowance, it would be prohibitively expensive to means-test people. Also, if people had to apply for the pass, as with other means-tested pensioner benefits, we might find a much lower uptake.

I recently attended a meeting of my own older people’s forum in Scarborough, and the very same suggestion was made. People said: “We’ve got these bus passes, but what’s the point, if there’s no bus to use? We’d be prepared to pay a nominal charge to use some of these services, if we could retain them.”

However, that would require a fundamental change to the way the system works, and it could be the thin end of the wedge, as services up and down the country – not just the ones that needed help to survive, but some of the more commercial ones – might also demand payment. It would change fundamentally the whole basis of the concessionary scheme. We do not at present have a scheme of free travel for pensioners on the railways. The discount available to pensioners or the railcards they can use are something completely different.

As for the other services, such as the 118 from Filey to Scarborough via Flixton, some of these have three or fewer passengers, so even if we charged passengers an additional £1 to use their passes on those journeys, that would mean only £3 on some of them. Indeed, some of the services in North Yorkshire have no passengers at all. We need to be more intelligent in the way we approach this. For example, the intention is for the F1 and F2 in Filey to be dial-a-ride services to replace the buses. Indeed, there is a successful dial-a-ride service in my constituency which, let us not forget, picks the pensioners up from their homes and takes them to where they need to go. Many people with mobility problems therefore find dial-a-ride to be a superior service to the bus, which requires them to get to a bus stop and wait, often in inclement weather.

Similarly, the 195 from Hovingham to Helmsley via Ampleforth will be reduced to three days a week, running only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, but again, that service currently carries only three or fewer passengers on some of its journeys. Interestingly, I had a telephone call last year from one of my constituents in Sleights – a lady who was a pensioner – who was concerned that the bus service there would be changed and would no longer be adequate. I asked how often she used it and she said: “Well, I don’t use the service myself – I’ve got a car – but the day may come when I do need a service and I’d like it to be there.”

There is therefore, to a degree, an aspiration or wish to have a service in case of emergencies or if that person can no longer drive. However, may I suggest that it is not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise a service in case people might want to use it one day?

The Government does recognise that improvements can and must be made. The Government wants to ensure that the bus market is still attractive to all operators, large and small, urban and rural, by ensuring that funding is allocated in the fairest way, while giving the best value for money to taxpayers.

Bus services in rural areas are not just concerned with levels of public funding. Commercial operators will provide services in areas where there are enough passengers, and overall commercial mileage in very rural areas of England is increasing. However, the Government accepts that when that is not feasible, local authorities play a vital role in supporting rural bus services. Indeed, about 28 per cent of bus mileage in predominately rural authorities is operated under contract to them.

Authorities such as North Yorkshire County Council are best placed to decide what support to provide, in response to local views and need and in the light of their overall funding priorities. It is therefore vital for them to maximise the return on every penny of the funding that they provide.

Providing bus transport solutions in rural areas also requires effective use of all available options, whether they be traditional fixed-route bus services, community buses, dial-a-ride, or other types of demand-responsive transport such as taxis.

The Government believe in buses. Our vision is of a “better bus” with more of what passengers want: punctual, interconnected services; greener and more fully wheelchair-accessible buses; and widely available smart ticketing. A more attractive, more competitive and greener bus network will encourage more passengers, cut carbon and create growth.

• Robert Goodwill is the Scarborough and Whitby MP, and also a Transport Minister. He spoke in a Commons debate on rural bus services. This is an edited version.