A vital public service in peril. That's the picture painted by our latest research, which reveals that bus services were cut by 16 per cent in the first year of the pandemic alone.
Local bus services have been in decline for some time: more than a quarter of English services have been lost in a decade. But the 16 per cent decline in 2020-21 is uniquely striking. The most concerning thing is that these cuts happened despite the Government putting special support in place to help operators through the pandemic... and that support is about to end. Today is the deadline for operators to submit any cuts they plan to make when pandemic-related Government funding ends on 1 October.
Communities are waiting with bated breath.
Because buses haven't stopped being vital. They are still vital to cutting traffic and pollution. They are still vital to accessing work and education, including for the 35 per cent of low-income households that have no car. They are still vital to tackling loneliness, and enabling people to live full lives. Just ask Christina:
"My council have cut the buses in my area. I do not drive so now I have to get a cab to the care home to visit my husband, costing me over a hundred pounds a week."
- Christina, West Sussex
The National Bus Strategy, Bus Back Better, published last year, had big ambitions to reverse the decline in buses. But our new report, Funding local bus services in England, reveals that the admirable sentiment of the strategy has not been matched by sufficient funding.
The National Bus Strategy asked local transport authorities to develop Bus Service Improvement Plans in order to access funding. All 79 local transport authorities rose to the challenge. But in the end, only two in five of them received any of this funding at all, and even they received less than a quarter of what they asked for.
This does not live up to the promise of a national bus strategy.
Winners and losers
This picture of winners and losers is familiar. By repeatedly asking local authorities to compete for bus funding, the Government is creating a two-tier system of haves and have nots. The places that tend to miss out are more rural and have smaller, perhaps less experienced public transport teams. Of course, these areas are arguably the ones that need extra funding the most.
"When employment advisers were asked what would most improve job opportunities specifically in rural areas, better public transport was the number one priority."
- From a blog by Sarah Welfare, Head of Policy and Research at Reed in Partnership
- How much have buses been cut in your area? How much funding did your local authority get for its Bus Service Improvement Plan? Read the report
What needs to happen next
The local authorities that missed out on funding for their Bus Service Improvement Plans need support now to overcome the barriers they may face.
In the longer term, the Government must move away from its current, fragmented and competitive way of funding and replace it with a long-term funding settlement for all councils.
And a greater proportion of bus funding should be revenue funding (to enable more frequent buses and cheaper tickets) rather than capital funding (for one-off projects like bus stations).
How can the Government afford to give every community the bus service it needs? Well, it should start by reallocating money from carbon intensive transport, like road building, into a single funding pot for all local authorities to spend on buses. And with vital services at risk and households struggling, it should act quickly. As Will told us:
"If there wasn't a bus or train, I wouldn't be able to go anywhere. I worry that these vital links will be permanently reduced, leaving people like me stranded or reliant on lifts."
- Will, Cumbria