Bus service cuts threaten the most vulnerable

Cuts to bus services in England are a threat to the most vulnerable people in society, a report by MPs says.

Local authority budget cuts have affected subsidised services – such as rural routes – and pushed up fares, says the Transport Select Committee.

It says elderly and disabled people are being stopped from working, taking part in education or accessing healthcare.

The government called the funding situation “challenging” but said it was closely monitoring the situation.

Subsidies are used to provide services which are not commercially viable – typically in the evenings, at weekends and in rural areas.

However, “extensive” cuts mean old, young or disabled people are being disproportionately affected, argues the report – which covers bus services in England, excluding London.

Last year’s Spending Review – which cut local authority budgets – prompted 70% of councils to reduce funding for subsidised services or increase fares, according to the report.

It also found that some buses had been withdrawn with little or no public consultation – something it says must change.

‘Greatest challenge’

launching the report, committee chairwoman and Labour MP Louise Ellman criticised the government’s approach to bus services.

“The government claims it wants to see better bus services with many more smartcard-enabled journeys”, said Ms Ellman.

“Yet, following the government’s spending review, we have seen a significant number of bus services withdrawn around the country and there is every indication that fares are set to rise well above the rate of inflation in some areas.”

The industry is up against “the greatest financial challenge it has faced for a generation”, adds the report, which warns that ministers “cannot wash their hands of all responsibility for local bus services”.

MPs want the Department for Transport to monitor the cuts and review the situation again next year.

They also recommend that the Local Government Association should advise authorities on how best to deliver cost-effective community transport.

Transport Minister Norman Baker said the government would respond formally to the report’s recommendations in the next few months.

He added: “The grant arrangements are under review to ensure they deliver our goals of cutting carbon and supporting the economy and continue to offer value for money.

“We are keeping a close eye on whether councils are approaching this imaginatively, finding savings in procurement and backroom staff, or just reaching for the axe and cutting frontline services.”

‘Unprecedented crisis’

General secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, Bob Crow, said the report underlined the scale of an “unprecedented crisis” threatening bus services in many parts of England.

“Lifeline services, particularly in rural areas, face total collapse with fares on whatever is left set to rocket as a direct result of government cuts,” he said.

The Chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, Stephen Joseph, said councils needed to re-consider what was a priority.

“This isn’t just a matter of buses not being there, these are lifelines for many people – people who can’t get access to healthcare who really need it, there are people who would like to take jobs, or get education training opportunities, and they can’t access those because the buses simply aren’t there. Or there may be a bus out there – but they can’t get one back.”

Mr Joseph called on the government to reverse its planned changes to the bus services operators’ grant.