Last week, Campaign for Better Transport sent a clear message to the Chancellor George Osborne that serious action needs to be taken to halt the decline of our bus services across the country.
In a letter signed by a broad coalition of 29 different charities, trade unions and groups including the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, the NUS and Age UK, we called on the Chancellor to step in to avert what is proving to be a crisis.
2014 is set to be the worst year yet for cuts to bus services, with local authorities being forced into making agonising decisions about their spending following cuts to their funding from Central Government. Already almost £20m has been earmarked to be cut from supported bus budgets, with potentially more on the way. Counties such as North Yorkshire, Dorset, Essex and Nottinghamshire are cutting huge amounts from their supported bus budgets, while Worcestershire and Cumbria are proposing to cut all support for bus services altogether.
This crisis comes following a decline in funding for buses over the last three years, as highlighted in our recent report Buses in Crisis. The report showed that big cuts to Local Authority funding were causing the bus services supported by councils to take a massive hit all over the country, 46 per cent of councils cut funding for supported buses in 2013.
As we told the Chancellor, buses are essential for our economy and our society. The poorest amongst us use buses the most, and they offer great value for money. For every £1 of public investment, buses provide between £3 and £5 of wider economic benefit, as they help people get to work, to job interviews, to hospitals and schools. Crucially, buses also reduce the isolation faced by many people without access to a car, and the elderly.
So as well as declining numbers of vital bus services, we are also concerned about the suggestions from some politicians that the legislation around vital concessionary travel should be loosened. Anne McIntosh MP recently held a House of Commons Debate on rural bus services, discussing changing the law to allow pensioners to pay for their travel in order to avoid bus cuts.
The concessionary bus pass is often criticised as a subsidy to rich pensioners. But in fact it's a vital part of everyday life for millions of people. Each of the 9.7 million concessionary passes held by older and disabled people is used an average of 105 times a year. Pensioners on the lowest incomes are most likely to use their bus pass and many regard it as essential for common journeys for shopping, to visit family and friends and to access healthcare.
Research shows that access to public transport contributes significantly to a more active lifestyle among some older people. Being able to use public transport helps people get out and about, reducing the likelihood of weight problems, something which costs the NHS over £10bn a year. Free bus travel also helps tackle many people’s biggest fear – isolation and loneliness.
A recent Local Government Association report showed that while the concessionary bus pass scheme has been a great success, years of chronic underfunding mean the scheme is now under threat. The report demonstrated how many local authorities are being forced into making decisions to withdraw bus services or cut routes completely, leaving people with passes but no bus to use them on.
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.
With 2014 set to be the worst year yet for bus cuts, we are hearing increasing numbers of heart-breaking personal stories from people who have been completely cut off after losing their buses. The single act of withdrawing a bus service can leave many vulnerable people without their vital lifeline.
The Government needs to recognise the huge national benefit of buses and we are calling on the Chancellor to do two things in this week’s Budget.
The first is to put in place emergency funding for buses to ensure that jobseekers, isolated people, and economic growth are not unduly disadvantaged by the pressures on local authority finance.
The second is for the Government to carry out a comprehensive and prompt review of bus funding that takes in to account the vital role buses play economically, socially and environmentally, to construct a long term funding settlement that would enable growth in this industry, just like that which we have seen in the railways.
If the Chancellor wants to see our economy continue to grow he must make public transport a priority and give buses the funding they need and deserve in his budget this week. This is quite simply vital to keep our country moving.
Public Transport Campaigner, Campaign for Better Transport