As a recently returned member of the Liberal Democrat Voice editorial team, I have the good fortune to receipt a copy of every press release issued by the Party. Well, I say good fortune but, most of the time, I simply delete them as being of little personal use. That isn’t a criticism of our Press team, but is a reflection of the fact that I’m only really an amateur journalist one day per week.
Sometimes though, one of them catches my attention, as it did on Thursday.
Local bus routes slashed by 14% in areas outside London
read the headline. Given that I live outside London, and rely on buses to get out and about in the absence of both a car and the ability to drive one, I wanted to find out more.
It seems that the number of miles travelled by supported bus routes, which are subsidised by local authorities, fell to 125 million in 2016/17 in areas of England outside London. This is a fall of 20 million miles, or 13.8%, compared to the previous year.
In truth, this comes as no great surprise. My village lost its last scheduled bus service a few years ago, but given that it ran once a week (on Market day) and was so obscure that even my then fellow Parish councillors didn’t know of its existence, its failure to survive was inevitable.
The service was replaced by Demand Responsive Transport, funded by the County Council. I could ring the contact number, talk to Margaret or Francesca, and we would agree pickup and drop off times, based on the needs of other users. It was surprisingly reasonable in cost and very efficient, helpful given that it was my only connection to the outside world apart from a long walk across the fields to either Stowmarket, Needham Market or Stowupland.
Suffolk County Council’s Conservative administration is inordinately proud of its record of freezing Council Tax, and of increasing reserves each year in excess of inflation. The down side of that is increasing pressure on what are seen as non-core services, and rural buses fall into that category, with subsidies reduced year on year.
My bus service was put out to tender as part of that programme of cuts, and the new operator was tasked with reducing the required subsidy to nil over five years. What that meant was a sizeable rise in fares - the cheap return was replaced by two singles (my fare went up by 54% as a result) but, worst of all, the County Council had, by design or by accident, excluded the Mid Suffolk service from the concessionary fare scheme for the elderly. That was hardly likely to help make the service viable, but nonetheless, it was done anyway.
It was noticed that the equivalent services in Waveney, Babergh, St Edmundsbury, Forest Heath and Suffolk Coastal all retained a right to use the concessionary fares scheme, and even in Ipswich, there were plenty of regular buses on which the scheme applied.
But, it was, and is, all about the money. The County Council continue to make cuts, rural bus routes shrivel up and die, and the villages become that little bit harder to get to and from. Once a bus runs on a less than hourly basis, the chances are that more and more people will simply switch to private vehicles. And if you make the schedule unpredictable, you’d better believe that you have problems.i
A death spiral ensues - less people ride the bus, so higher subsidies are required, which the County Council can’t, or won’t countenance. Thus, more cuts, less buses, further passenger switching to private vehicles. I can’t object to the apparently inexorable logic, but there comes a point when rural isolation becomes more of a problem than the cost of the subsidy.
It is no consolation that rural bus services are under threat across the country, as the Save Our Buses campaign notes in its briefings, but at least someone is banging the drum for even a vestigial rural transport. It would be nicer if someone on power was actually listening...