Ray Wilkes leads Campaign for Better Transport West Yorkshire Local Group and has been campaigning for sustainable public transport for many years. We asked Ray to write a guest blog giving his take on the state of the nation's buses whilst continuing our theme of focussing on Yorkshire. Here Ray explains why cutting buses is a false economy and why concessionary bus travel should be properly funded......
In both the bus industry and general press, there are mixed messages coming out about buses. The fact is that despite the cuts and the economy, many bus services are being improved. Here in West Yorkshire we have had improvements to services on weekdays and Sundays. Already, passengers have responded by increasingly using the buses, giving about 10% growth on some routes. Over in Lancashire, Transdev have improved services to Keighley and Skipton, Skipton now having its best ever service from Burnley. Excitingly for Dalesbus users, there is now an hourly Sunday service from Manchester to Grassington and it is commercial not supported!
It's good to see that some areas in Northern England are actually getting better services. However, the main issue currently is about cuts to bus services and the impacts these have on local communities. There are cuts to tendered services, due to Council funding being reduced. There are cuts to other services, because councils are underpaying the concessionary reimbursement. There will be more cuts due a reduction in the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG ). Even some of the companies which are expanding their bus networks are cutting some routes and frequencies within that network.
The main threat to bus services, as I see it, is the inadequacy of concessionary re-imbursement. When free fares were introduced, the deal was that bus companies ‘should be no better off and no worse off’. Yet it is clear that many bus companies are worse off, especially in rural areas. Routes which used to be commercial are being withdrawn because pensioners are travelling free and the local authority isn’t paying enough.
The original deal was wrong. Obviously if the government is making a mass purchase of bus journeys for pensioners there should be discount for bulk. However, it is wholly wrong that the bus companies should not benefit from providing this service for society. Rather than being simply ‘no worse off or no worse off’, they should be better off because free rides for pensioners bring enormous social benefits. People get out and socialise more and this improves their mental and physical health. Because many are leaving their cars at home everyone benefits from reduced congestion and air pollution. So why should bus companies be no better off if they have provided this benefit in partnership with the government? The government say that the reimbursement might count as illegal state aid under EU rules. This is nonsense. Is the NHS a form of state aid to pharmaceutical companies who are clearly better off with an NHS than without one?
We need bus users to press politicians to change the system so that the payments are more generous. We know that the government is genuinely short of money. Nevertheless, when concession holders get a free bus ride they save their bus fare. For every £1 the government gives to a bus company, the pensioner has over £2 extra to spend. They then spend this money either directly in shops or on their grandchildren who are even better at spending. So all the money that the government pays out to the bus company directly benefits the retail sector and the government immediately get 20% back in VAT! That is 40% of what the government originally paid out. If the money is spent in a pub, and quite a bit certainly is, then the government gets even more back. All the money spent helps keep people in employment and these employees pay tax. It is clear that the money the government spends on buses is a very good investment in the whole economy and in tax revenues. Fairer re-imbursement is affordable.
The first thing the government should do is to make sure that the system is administered properly.. The government hands money to local authorities who decide whether to pay it properly to the bus companies or whether to spend it on something else and cheat the bus companies. The same company running a cross-border service often ends up with a different concession rate in each county. Something so clearly ridiculous and unfair surely needs sorting out! At the very least the re-imbursement rate should be based on local conditions and not so directly related to fares that it distorts commercial judgments. The LA should bill the DfT for the costs incurred so that it was the LA which was ‘should be no better off and no worse off’.
If the concession rate and its administration are not sorted out properly, the government will end up spending much extra on healthcare and other social services because people will not have the bus services. Our rural, semi-rural and off peak services are under severe threat due to this current policy. If Baroness Kramer does not want to be remembered as the “Beeching of the Buses” she needs to get a grip on this problem speedily!
You can contact Ray and the West Yorkshire Campaign for Better Transport Group here or you can follow Ray Wilkes on twitter here