Free travel shortfall puts more routes at risk

The shortfall in funding free concessionary bus travel in England has grown to £652million and will rise again in 2019/20, putting more supported services in danger, says the Local Government Association.

In a report issued on 9 February, the LGA says the gap in funding from central government has more than tripled since it made a previous estimate in 2016. In order to meet their statutory duty to provide the concession, it says councils are reducing the number of services on which older and disabled people may use it.

Between 2014/15 and 2017/18, they have reduced spending on discretionary concessionary travel — such as weekday journeys outside the statutory hours of 09.30 to 23.00, park-&-ride services and express routes like Trent Barton’s Nottingham-Derby Red Arrow — by 26% from £115million to £85million. They have also cut spending on supported services by 33% since 2010 to £122million.

‘This is less money being spent on providing supported rural bus services, discretionary subsidised bus services, such as free peak travel, post-16 school transport, companion free travel or assistance for young persons’ travel,’ says the LGA.

‘Nearly half of all bus routes in England currently receive partial or complete subsidies from councils and are under threat.’

LGA transport spokesman Cllr Martin Tett, the Conservative leader of Buckinghamshire County Council, says: ‘Local authorities want to protect the bus services which provide a vital service for our communities and are a lifeline for our most vulnerable residents to go shopping, pick up medication, attend doctor appointments or socialise with friends and family.

‘But due to significant funding pressures and the underfunding of the national free bus pass scheme, councils have been forced to reduce or scale back these services and review subsidised routes, and even reduce spending on other vital services to plug the gap.

‘Properly funding the national free bus pass scheme is essential if the government wants councils to be able to maintain our essential bus services, reduce congestion and protect vital routes. If this is not addressed in the spending review, it could lead to older people having a free bus pass but no bus to travel on.’

Four days earlier, the Association of Transport Coordinating Officers (ATCO) warned that the rate of service withdrawal is increasing as rising costs cause operators to abandon hitherto commercial routes and terminate supported service contracts early when they no longer consider them to be viable.

Although councils are usually able to replace contracts terminated early, it says they have replaced less than two thirds of withdrawn commercial routes. ‘Government restrains mean that councils can no longer afford contracts to add previously commercial services in addition to their existing commitments,’ warns John Carr, who chairs ATCO’s performance group.

‘If they decide that a recently commercial route needs to be replaced even in truncated form, they will have to reduce support to other routes.’

ATCO says that it is only in larger urban areas and along interurban routes where most services are operated commercially that current levels of services are sufficient to allow reasonable levels of mobility. ‘Local bus services are an endangered species in many rural areas and residential suburbs not lying on the core commercial networks.’

Addressing the Confederation of Passenger Transport’s annual dinner in London the previous week, transport secretary Chris Grayling urged the industry to adopt demandresponsive transport solutions like Oxford Bus Company’s PickMeUp, which Go-Ahead Group chief executive David Brown says is ‘a long way from being commercially viable’ despite generating over 68,000 journeys.

Grayling also announced funding for a further 400 community minibuses in England, but ATCO’s survey shows that councils’ spending on community transport and other non-conventional public transport services fell by over 10% in 2017/18.