Friday 5th February 2016
Those fortunate enough to live in our country’s beautiful hinterlands will know that transport is one of the major issues facing the UK’s rural communities. Where London and other large towns and cities often enjoy excellent internal and external connectivity, sadly many rural towns and villages do not. In ‘the city’ many (even most) people happily cope without a car, and indeed have been encouraged through measures such as congestion charges to live car free. Not so in the countryside.
And it seems possible that this situation is about to be worsened. The Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) has stated that Westminster funding for bus routes has fallen by £78 million since 2010, with cuts of a further £27 million looming ominously. Comparing the situation to the “swingeing and misguided” cuts made to our rail network by Dr Beeching in the 1960s (which so drastically affected the vitality of many rural settlements), Martin Abrams from the CBT said: “Up and down the country utterly devastating cuts are now being inflicted on our vital bus services on a par with the…cuts the government and Dr Beeching made to our rail network which decimated services back in the 1960s.”
CBT suggests that local authorities which may be forced to cut-back include Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Somerset, Dorset, West Berkshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire, North Yorkshire and Lancashire. Oxfordshire County Council has already told the BBC it will look to save £4 million by reducing subsidies to more than 100 routes, as a result of the overall reduction in government funding to councils.
Peter Box, the LGA’s transport spokesman said of the threatened bus service reductions that “Councils know how important buses are for their communities and local economies and are desperate to protect them.” However “many across the country are reluctantly taking difficult decisions to scale back services and review subsidised routes as a result.”
So what measures will local councils take, both to protect bus services for rural communities and in response to funding cuts more generally? One answer could be a proliferation of so-called ‘super councils’, along the lines of the merger proposed by Bournemouth, Poole, Christchurch and East Dorset Councils. With a significantly increased budget, such a ‘super-council’ could potentially continue providing the transport their residents need. Another clear (but not simple) answer is for councils to push harder for growth in their local economy, encouraging new development, investment and businesses as a way to boost revenue.
Or is the answer for service providers to engage in some more ‘joined-up thinking’ and create partnerships of their own? In order to improve efficiency, could buses double up as a package delivery service? Is there potential for food delivery vans to also pick up and deliver the post? Again, this might not be a simple solution, but anything that keeps important services going for rural communities would be a good outcome.
Whatever the new solution is, there will certainly be exciting opportunities for both councils and potential investors as a result of central government’s new ‘settlement’ for local authorities.