20 November 2012: The Government is giving councils more control over funding for buses. The change mustn't mean passengers lose out.
Funding support for buses really matters. Because of central Government cuts, the people who use buses – often the young, the old and those without a car - are seeing cuts to services they rely on. This is preventing them from accessing vital services and employment opportunities, and potentially leave them more isolated.
Recent figures from the DfT show the extent to which bus users are being cut adrift. Ticket prices are rising at more than twice the rate of inflation (6.5% on average in the last year), and the number of bus services is down (services directly supported by local councils declined by 10%). This year both local council supported services and commercial services have also seen Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) cut by 20%.
Against this bleak backdrop, there is a pin-prick of light. Local government should be best placed to interpret local needs and support bus services. The proposal from the Government to give local councils responsibility for BSOG and a new Better Bus Areas fund for bus partnerships could be a small silver lining. But unless controls are placed on how it can be spent, BSOG could just disappear into local council budgets as councillors try to make up shortfalls elsewhere.
We've told the Government it needs to ensure basic safeguards in its support for buses. First, devolved BSOG must be ring-fenced for a period of time consistent with the local authority’s contract with the bus contractor.
Second, more needs to be done to help local transport authorities support sustainable transport. The new Better Bus Areas fund to encourage partnerships between bus companies and local councils is welcome. But those bidding to get funding from it must demonstrate how they will benefit passengers through, for instance, improving concessionary passes for young people, multi-operator ticketing schemes so people can use tickets on more than one bus company and through making door to door journeys by public transport easier.
It’s not a great time for bus users. Both funding and services remain under real pressure. However, by ensuring money for buses is spent on buses, and by supporting local authorities and bus operators who work together Government can minimise the damage its cuts are causing and maintain services which are desperately needed.