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What’s to become of local bus services?

Without further funding, bus services across the UK are in danger of being axed.

By Zoë Grünewald

Bus operators will be forced to close essential routes across England next month unless the government provides fresh financial support, the Local Government Association (LGA) has warned.

The route closures would have a “devastating impact on people who rely on these services”, according to transport spokesperson for the LGA, David Renard. On Monday, the LGA, the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (Adept), the Urban Transport Group and the Campaign for Better Transport joined forces to call upon the government to urgently extend its Bus Recovery Grant, which has provided operations and local authorities with emergency funding after Covid-19 dramatically impacted passenger numbers.

Renard said: “Government funding has helped keep buses on the road, allowing operators to close the gap between the costs of providing local public transport and the reduced revenues from much lower numbers of passengers than normal. Passenger numbers have not returned to those seen before the pandemic, and without continued support it is clear that some routes will no longer be viable and will have to be reduced.”

The Bus Recovery Grant was set up to support commercial bus operators in England, outside of Greater Manchester and London, during the pandemic. Between March 2020 and March 2021, the number of local bus passenger journeys in England fell by 61 per cent. Though local bus passenger journeys have risen since restrictions were lifted, passenger numbers are still only at 70 per cent of pre-Covid levels, which campaigners say may lead to more cuts to services. As the grant is only valid until the end of March this year, the LGA has warned that “cherished and essential bus routes may have to be axed from the end of next month if emergency government funding support is not extended”. On 8 February, when giving evidence to a House of Lords committee, the chief executive of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, Graham Vidler, explained that operators may be forced to reduce their services by “about 30 per cent” if the government does not introduce further funding.

The government pledged £3bn to the “transformation” of buses in the recent Levelling Up white paper, which promises elements such as new bus priority lanes, increased frequency of services and reduced fares for passengers. However, campaigners warn that local bus services across the country still face an uncertain future – with a number of mayors and regional chiefs writing to the government to express their concern at “double counting” the promised funding in the white paper by including the £1.5bn of emergency funds during the pandemic. The leaders, including Mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, and Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, stated: “We write to you today because we are concerned that the committed levels of funding are not adequate to secure the future provision of bus services in our cities and regions. Buses are relied upon by those communities that have the least and need better bus services in order to access opportunity for employment, education, healthcare and more.”

As a result, local communities have taken action into their own hands. The Northern Agenda political newsletter has announced it is carrying out a survey into bus services in the north of England in order to ascertain “a picture of how often people use local buses, what might tempt them back and whether they believe fundamental reform is needed to the system”. Matthew Topham, a Better Buses for West Yorkshire campaigner, said: “If politicians want to deliver levelling up, they’d be listening to passengers on these issues and delivering fully funded, fully public local transport.”

The Department for Transport told the Guardian it is “working closely with the sector to understand the potential challenges and possible mitigations once [the recovery support grand] ends in April”, but figures compiled by the shadow buses minister’s office are already demonstrating that the total amount of funding bids for the additional £1.4bn pledged in the white paper are expected to exceed £9bn. As a result, the government will have to dig much deeper into its pockets to ensure the security of bus services across the country.

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