Monday, January 05, 2015

"Rural bus services are crap,", says Labour shadow minister, "so we'll reallocate the blame to someone else..."

Michael Dugher has, somewhat belatedly, realised that subsidies for bus services have been cut, resulting in a loss of services, especially in rural areas, according to the Guardian. Well spotted, that man (apologies to anyone who doesn't really approve of sarcasm)!

Unlike Mr Dugher, the MP for Barnsley East, I am a non-driver living in a rural community. I actually experience the problems caused by the absence of public transport but also have an awareness of the costs of providing bus services that are sparsely used.

The bus from Stowupland
- subsequently axed for lack of subsidy
Firstly, bus services in rural areas have been relatively sparse for decades, compared to urban areas. And the problem is, because of that, people in rural areas buy cars. As more of them buy cars, there are less people to patronise the bus routes which, accordingly, become less profitable, until eventually, they only run with public subsidies. People who can't drive drift towards towns, and rider figures drop further.

As a local authority, you can increase the subsidy, but convenience will always determine the means by which an individual chooses to travel. Indeed, Ros noted from her time as Deputy Leader of Suffolk County Council that, on some routes, it was cheaper to pay passengers to take taxis than to pay for an infrequent bus to run. And, with local government budgets squeezed year on year, if you have a choice between cutting libraries or social care, and a bus service used regularly by a dozen or so people, which would you choose?

Mr Dugher's solution?
The bus market is clearly broken and the way local services are provided is not fit for purpose. Labour would change that and hand cities and county regions greater control over local bus services. We will ensure people get the local transport system they need.
Look, control is not the problem, money is the problem, and you can provide more bus services if they are financially viable or if someone is willing and able to pay for them. You could allow cross-subsidy again, but, to be honest, who wants to run loss-making services? Of course, the classic Labour solution of compulsion hovers nervously in the background.

The solution is to spend what money there is more efficiently, not to make meaningless promises on the basis of an apparent lack of awareness as to what it is like to live in a rural community. Demand responsive transport, for example, would make a huge difference to those affected by rural isolation.

I look forward to my Labour candidate turning up here in April to tell me how he or she is going to ensure that I get the local transport system I need. I live in a fairly isolated village, three miles from a town with buses and trains. That's three miles across country, on roads that wind around without pavements, or across public footpaths that are ankle-deep in mud in winter. Perhaps they could offer to drive me to the station every morning...

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