RURAL communities are being left isolated because councils have been forced to reduce bus services, new figures reveal.
Local authorities have been forced to reduce bus services by more than 12% in the last year alone, according to the Local Government Association. This has left thousands of rural people isolated, says the LGA, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales.
In the past financial year, the distance travelled by council-supported bus services outside London has dropped from 165 to 144 million miles – a fall of 12.3%. The picture over the past decade is similarly bleak.
Council-supported bus services in rural areas have reduced by 40% – by 71 million bus miles from 178 million miles to 107 million miles. Councils have seen a 40% reduction in their core funding in the previous parliament and are continuing to experience funding pressures.
As these pressures start to impact, the cuts to bus services have begun to accelerate. Local authorities are being forced to divert money from discretionary subsidised bus services to fund the concessionary fares scheme, which councils have a statutory duty to provide. The scheme gives pensioners and disabled people in England free off-peak travel on all local bus services anywhere in England.
The Local Government Association (LGA), is calling on the Government to use the Autumn Statement to fully fund the Concessionary Fares Scheme. This is currently subsidised by council funding that has to be diverted from other services.
LGA Transport spokesman said Martin Tett said the association was also calling for the £250m Bus Service Operators Grant to be devolved to councils to help target support to vital services.
“These new figures show just how much pressure many local bus services are under, with councils forced by a lack of central government funding to cut discretionary services. In many cases, this is hitting rural communities hardest, leaving families isolated.
“This is why it is paramount the Government fully funds the Concessionary Fares Scheme in the Autumn Statement."
Councillor Tett said years of underfunding of the scheme had forced councils to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers' money to subsidise the scheme.
“This is now impossible with councils having to make savings while struggling to protect vital services like adult social care, protecting children, filling potholes and collecting bins. Councils know how important buses are for their communities and local economies and are desperate to protect them. Instead, many across the country are reluctantly taking difficult decisions to scale back services and review subsidised routes.”
Councillor Tett said local authorities were working with residents to try and find innovative solutions to the situation.
These included organising car-sharing schemes, dial-a-ride or community transport initiatives but routes and services can no longer be protected.
“Unless the government commits to fully funding concessionary fares, elderly and disabled people will be left stranded with a free bus pass in one hand but no local buses to travel on in the other.”