Feature: ‘Crisis’ on the buses

A 'Best By Bus' slogan on a vintage vehicle.
A 'Best By Bus' slogan on a vintage vehicle.
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Reporter Charlie Bullough looks at the impact of bus funding cuts and what can be done to improve services

The Campaign for Better Transport has a blunt message about the national state of our bus services. The charity has entitled its report ‘Buses in Crisis’.

The Number 5 bus en route between Chipping and Longridge

The Number 5 bus en route between Chipping and Longridge

Recent Government figures show the number of local bus journeys are at a 12-year low. According to the data, 1.2 billion journeys were made in Britain between April and June this year. That’s a 10 per cent dip from the peak of 2008.

The statistics follow on the back of the publication of The Campaign for Better Transport’s report about bus funding across England and Wales from 2010 to 2018.

It made Freedom of Information requests to all 110 local transport authorities across England and Wales to get a full picture of recent bus cuts.

In short, it found local authority bus budgets in England and Wales were cut by £20.5 million in just the last year - the eighth year in a row budgets have been cut.

The Number 5 bus en route between Chipping and Longridge

The Number 5 bus en route between Chipping and Longridge

Stephen Joseph, its former chief executive, wrote in the foreword: “The lack of affordable public transport affects wider Government policies. It stops people getting access to training and jobs. It makes access to healthy food in shops more difficult. It makes it more difficult for people to get to health services, especially more specialist services in hospitals. So cuts in bus services add to poverty and social exclusion, and to isolation and loneliness.”

Among, the report’s key findings for England was a net reduction in funding of £20.2 million to supported bus services in England in 2017-18. Since 2010-11 there has been a net reduction of £172 million in this sector.

The study also painted a picture of vastly reduced bus services. In 2017-18 290 bus services have been reduced, altered or withdrawn. Factor in figures since 2010 and that figure rises to 3,088.

In Wales there was a net reduction in funding of £211,819 to supported bus services in 2017-18, down one per cent from the previous year. But since 2010 the net reduction stands at £10 million. Statistics also revealed 82 per cent of Welsh authorities reduced or spent nothing on supported bus services during 2017-18.

Number of bus routes reduced or withdrawn in 2017/18. Picture credit: Campaign For Better Transport

Number of bus routes reduced or withdrawn in 2017/18. Picture credit: Campaign For Better Transport

The report is dotted with quotes from concerned commuters up and down the land telling how the cuts are impacting on them.

A guide dog owner from Lancashire tells of reduced independence, while a man in Northamptonshire feels cut off by reduced bus services. While others felt they needed a car to get to the doctors or do their weekly shop.

Cuts have come from three different directions: the Bus Service Operators Grant was cut by 20 per cent in 2012-13 and has not been increased since; local authorities have their funding cut generally; and its claimed the free travel scheme for pensioners and the disabled is under funded.

The report laments: “It is not just sparsely populated rural areas who are affected. Across the country, smaller towns now find themselves in the firing line, caught in a spiral of lost bus services and other damaging trends such as struggling high streets.”

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Some authorities have protected their services and in a few cases, like Lancashire, authorities have actually increased funding again.

So what can be done to improve things for commuters across England and Wales?

The Campaign for Better Transport makes a host of recommendations to improve the plight of passengers.

It wants to see a national strategy for bus and coaches with long term funding and targets to reverse the decline in bus use and to increase use of them. Other advice is bringing together and co-ordinating funding.

In Wales the campaigning charity wants to see the new Wales and Borders railway franchise being used to integrate buses and trains more effectively. It would like to see stations developed as transport hubs, plus integrated timetabling and joint ticketing.

In October the charity responded to media reports about Department for Transport figures showing the number of local bus journeys are at a 12-year low.

Darren Shirley, the chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: “The falling number of passengers taking the bus is a consequence of continued cuts in funding to supported services. Nationally and locally this is resulting in fewer services and higher fares. The statistics back up what our research has been showing for years: that buses are in crisis.

“They are vital for the economy and the environment but year on year people, especially in rural areas, are losing their bus service making it difficult to access jobs, education and other essential public services.”

However, the Government feels local councils are best placed to decide how to provide supported bus services. It has devolved £43m of the Bus Services Operators Grant directly to local authorities to support non-commercial services. It also points to the Bus Services Act 2017, which introduces new bus franchising powers for local authorities as well as providing other tools to improve bus services.

A Government spokesman said: “We recognise that buses are vital in connecting people, homes and businesses, and that’s why we have given local councils extra powers to work in partnership with bus companies to improve the services passengers expect. This is on top of the public funding provided to bus operators and councils to fund services.

“While local authorities are best placed to decide how to provide supported bus services, we provide around £250 million every year to support bus services and a further £1 billion to support older and disabled people using the free bus pass scheme, benefitting people up and down the country.”