I recently had the great pleasure of addressing 4,000 members of the Women’s Institute at their annual meeting. I was invited to talk in support of a resolution calling for the Government and local authorities to address the decline in local bus services, particularly in rural areas.
As one of the few groups campaigning on buses at the national level, for the last nine years we have been tracking the decline of local bus services, and campaigning for changes to halt this worrying trend.
We know that buses are a vitally important means of transport for so many people and communities, representing 60 per cent of all public transport journeys.
They are the core of our public transport system and they are being eroded and damaged irrecoverably. Without regular, reliable and affordable buses communities are suffering: access to jobs and education goes down; local shops and services suffer; pollution and congestion go up, whilst air and local environmental quality go down.
This cannot continue. We need to protect services. But just pledging to reopen all the lost routes isn’t enough - we need to design and fund bus services that people want to and can use.
That needs national leadership in the form of a National Coach and Bus Investment Strategy and transport funding from across Government. This would then support new services, such as demand responsive buses; accelerate the move to low and zero emission vehicles; encourage the use of new technology to make it easy to plan journeys; and build new infrastructure, like rural travel hubs.
Whilst we need leadership and investment from the very top, we also need more involvement from local authorities. They should be creating a network that works for the community and meets its needs.
Of course, it’s not just local authorities that spend on buses. The NHS, schools, and social services are spending a fortune making up for the loss of local bus services. These transport budgets should be combined so more can be done locally to develop a network that serves more people.
Bus services are vital for connectivity, growth and social cohesion. They ensure that communities remain sustainable, reduce social isolation and ensure access to employment, education and local facilities such as shops, leisure centres and health services.
We must do more to protect and grow our bus services around the country. Whether that’s calling for change at the national level and commitment from Government, especially in the Spending Review that is coming up, or at the local level highlighting the impact of lost services on communities, and bringing people together to promote the bus as a sustainable form of travel.
That’s why I’m so pleased that WI members voted to pass the resolution and are adding campaigning to tackle the decline in local buses to their existing campaign agenda, which includes mental health, action on microplastic fibre pollution and alleviating loneliness.
Buses are an issue where WIs can have a profound impact across the country. By supporting this resolution, the strength and power of WIs will be an important catalyst for change for our bus services and the communities they serve, and we look forward to working together in the future.