‘Missing the Bus?’ 5 takeaways from the LGA’s recent report.

Tom Banner

“Buses play a vital role in enabling people…to access health, education, leisure services, shops and of course jobs. They are crucial to many people’s general well-being, especially those who are at risk from social isolation.”

That quotation opened the Local Government Association’s recent report on the future of bus services in the UK. The report, titled ‘Missing the Bus? Councils and the future of the bus in non-metropolitan areas’, discussed the problems facing bus services across the country and the threat faced by those who rely on them.

Community transport plays a vital role in the running of bus services in the UK through its own Section 22 routes that complement or feed mainstream services, so this report was of significant interest to the CTA and to our members. Here we discuss our five primary thoughts on the report.

Bus services really are vital to communities

Over five billion bus journeys are made every year across the UK- three times more than the total number of journeys by rail. Buses, especially those in rural communities, are vital in ensuring that hundreds of thousands of people are able to participate in their society, accessing health services, education, recreation and jobs.

The very fact that the LGA has put out this report shows that bus services are on the agenda and we couldn’t be happier about that. It’s vital, though, that bus services, and their relationship with community transport, continue to be recognised and understood when it comes to looking at transport policy in the UK, and that their high level of importance needs to be kept in mind when discussing policy specific to buses.

It’s important to consult communities on cuts and changes to bus services

Due to funding cuts, councils are having to make significant reductions to bus services and it’s vitally important that the communities affected are consulted on cuts and changes. The report concurs saying that “public consultation has proved essential” when changing bus routes and attempting to mitigate the effects of cuts on the public.

Local communities are always willing to get involved in this process and they should always be given the right to contribute. Recently, the Community Transport Association put together a report for councils on how to make consultations accessible to the public. We talked about making sure that consultations are visible, giving people every opportunity to attend, and that they cater to those with disabilities and other needs. We’ll be publishing the report soon.

Community Transport is not immune to cuts and regulation but it needs to be part of the solution

“A further important element in framing service cuts,” the report says, “was whether alternatives to the traditional bus could meet needs at lower costs.” One such alternative mentioned by the report was community transport.

The report states, however, that community transport may struggle in many areas to fill the gaps created by cuts to bus services since CT operators are also facing problems, being “squeezed between state aid rules on the one hand and a lack of volunteers and funding on the other.”

We’re pleased to see the LGA recognising the problems facing community transport, especially picking up on the issue of D1 licences which often hurts the ability of community transport operators to recruit volunteer drivers.  It’s undoubtedly true, then, that community transport is feeling the effects of cuts and government regulation. CT operators are not invulnerable, with a number going out of business alongside commercial operators.

Community transport, however, along with other ‘non-conventional’ solutions such as demand response transport, taxi buses and wheels to work schemes, are still prominent features on the transport landscape. It’s important to recognise the problems facing community transport but it’s also vital that we act on these problems and don’t discount the value and the impact that an increase in CT services could have. Whilst community transport is feeling the effects of cuts and regulation like everyone else, it is part of the solution and can provide excellent value for money and services to communities.

Moreover, we recently put out a briefing note on the government’s proposed Buses Bill, looking at changes to bus services across the UK. In it we reiterated our belief that community transport should be seen as part of the mainstream network, not just as a last resort to pick up the slack if bus services fail. We passionately believe in the benefits of greater integration of CT services and a better relationship between community transport and the private sector. As the transport sector looks at the future of bus services in the UK, we are confident that others will join us in this way of thinking.

Services are at risk from future cuts

In the report, the LGA states that “reductions of up to 40% to core council funding have called into question the future of many services.” They continue: “There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that bus cuts can leave the elderly unable to manage on their own.”

This is just one example of the real world impact that cuts to bus services have on those in our society and those that community transport operators exist to help. With the potential of more cuts to come, the role of community transport will become ever more vital. Whilst we are adamant, then, that community transport is not just a fall back for when commercial bus services fail, our members are picking up that role and need the support of the CTA and local government to do so.

There is cause for optimism however

The report states, and we concur, that there is cause for optimism. The Government’s enthusiasm for Total Transport is such a cause. Total Transport is an initiative devised by councils which involves bringing together the funding and expertise behind a diverse range of transport providers. The scheme aims to create a “more customer focused service based on consumer choice and what they are willing to pay, rather than a centralised system.” The Total Transport approach helps to ensure that transport costs and the needs of the community are considered whilst planning services and looks both at commercial bus routes and community transport schemes. The Total Transport initiative is only in the pilot stage at the moment, albeit in 37 areas, but we hope that as the scheme develops it will prove a benefit to community transport operators and subsequently to the people and communities that they serve.

All in all, then, the LGA’s report makes for an interesting and informative read, highlighting the issues that bus services and their users face, but also discussing how services and communities can be protected. We believe that, in large part, community transport can provide solutions and we will continue to advocate for CT operators to be regulated, involved and supported to make the biggest difference they can for the passengers and communities they serve.

Lastly, the Chair of the Local Government Association and the author of the report’s foreword is Councillor Peter Box, leader of Wakefield Council; he be speaking at the Community Transport Association’s Westminster Conference on 25 November. The conference will be a fantastic opportunity to talk to some of those at the forefront of government and the transport and voluntary sectors. More information on the event, and how to book, can be found here.

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