Cars, buses, trains, bicycles are a crucial part of everyday life – whether it's commuting for work, getting to school, visiting friends and family or attending an appointment. Yet in many parts of rural England transport is not working, making it difficult for people to reach jobs, schools, shops and services. What does the future hold? Jessica Sellick investigates.
Reductions in bus services, services that don't run in the afternoons or at all at weekends, households running a car (sometimes 2 cars) out of necessity not choice, loss of services requiring trekking more miles to see a hospital consultant and improvements to public transport viewed as an 'absolute' priority; these are just some of the issues and concerns voiced by RSN Members and rural residents. How are these issues being taken up by policy and decision makers? What innovative and creative local rural transport solutions can we find? I offer three points.
Firstly, policy makers recognise the complexities of rural transport provision. The Department for Transport's (DFT) National Transport Survey identifies differences in travel behaviour, levels of mobility and access to services between urban and rural areas. The survey reveals that people living in the most rural areas travel 45% further each year than those in England as a whole (and 53% further than those living in urban areas). A greater percentage of total annual mileage is made using a car in the most rural areas - 58% compared to 49% in urban areas. The DFT's data on 'households with good transport access to key services or work' found the number of households in villages with good transport access had declined from 57% in 2007 to 27% in 2011. And Defra's Statistical Release on diesel and petrol prices found drivers in rural areas paid slightly more for their fuel at the pump compared to their urban counterparts: 1.9 pence per litre or 1.4% more, equating to £1.27 more to fill up your tank.
While transport is crucial to sustaining rural communities, the EFRA Select Committee describes "limited evidence of action to reflect this status [of transport as a Ministerial Priority]". In July 2013, the Committee published its Sixth Special Report on Rural Communities. This assessed how successful Defra and its Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU) have been at championing rural issues across Government. The Committee's recommendations on transport included: (1) calls for a nationwide and strategic policy for transport; (2) an expectation that when the Rural Statement is updated it follows up on the concerns and opportunities outlined in the 2012 Community Transport Association's State of the Sector Report; (3) Defra should work with the DFT and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to ensure schemes such as Wheels-to-Work (W2W) do not falter through lack of funding; (4) consider introducing fuel duty discounts in more remote parts of the UK; and (5) reduce car dependency by creating rural transport hubs (e.g. buses that link to trains to help people get to and from work).
Defra responded to the Committee's report in October 2013, indicating that the Government has no plans to publish an update to the Rural Statement; signalling the importance of the Rural Transport Reference Group in bringing together intelligence from Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) and Rural Community Action Network (RCAN); highlighting the role of LEPs, local government, commercial and voluntary sectors in addressing transport needs at a local level; and confirming Defra is working with the DFT, the DWP and Office for Civil Society (Cabinet Office) to discuss different financing models for W2W.
More broadly, the Government has been rolling out initiatives as part of the 'improving local transport' and 'supporting economic growth' policies. 'Green Light for Better Buses', for example, set out a series of reforms to improve local bus subsidy arrangements and regulations to attract more people onto buses, provide better value-for-money and give local transport authorities more influence over their bus networks. Within Better Bus Areas (BBA), the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) for services run commercially is gradually devolved to local authorities and supplemented by a top up fund worth 20% of the BSOG claimed. Sheffield was designated the first BBA in February 2013 as part of its city deal. In October 2013, following a competitive process, the DFT designated a further four BBAs (Merseyside, York, Nottingham and the West of England) – with total funding of £16.5 million available up to 2017. Local Transport Minister Baroness Kramer describes how BBAs will "change the traditional method of funding bus travel in a way designed to drive up performance." What are the impacts of the BSOG, especially on community transport, and will BBAs take up rural as well as city routes?
Secondly, in many rural areas commercial transport solutions are not always feasible, leaving resident's car dependent and councils and communities needing to find other solutions. On the one hand, commercial operators do not have a high volume of passengers on more rural routes and subsidies available from local authorities remain under threat. On the other hand, community, voluntary and charitable sectors play a key role in transport provision - although they too are affected by reductions in local government funding and the falling incomes of users. Notwithstanding these challenges, there are a number of innovative local transport schemes. In October 2013, East Riding of Yorkshire Council launched its Parish Transport Toolkit. 1 in 6 households in the East Riding do not own a car or van and the Toolkit is intended to help communities identify and implement the transport solution that best fits the place they live in. 'Access Lincs', an initiative from Lincolnshire County Council, helps businesses to access sustainable transport solutions for their employees. Rural Communities Action Nottinghamshire (RCAN) has a plethora of transport initiatives: from Wheels-to-Work (assisting 20 young people), to Car Scheme Plus, a MiDAS training programme for volunteers in minibus and car share schemes to supporting 14 community based transport schemes to apply for funding towards their growth plans. In Cambridgeshire, the Ely Cycling Campaign is developing a strategy, projects and resources to improve roads and paths for cyclists between villages surrounding the city.
Thirdly, all this information illuminates how rural residents travel longer distances, have higher costs, greater reliance on car use and changing access to public transport (do you have a 'regular' bus service nearby?). It also highlights the role of public, commercial, voluntary and community sectors in generating solutions. In October 2013, the Independent Transport Commission (ITC) held a discussion on 'rural transport in Britain: how can we improve provision and accessibility?' Issues raised by delegates included communities needing to be more active in bringing users together to support transport; the implications of an ageing population and whether the (eventual) availability of super-fast broadband in rural areas will provide new tools for demand-sensitive community transport.
For me, the current situation is summed up perfectly by an RSN Member: "the usual reaction is to agree that it is a problem and then to move on. No-one is willing to address the problem properly. There are solutions but they take money and effort, with a long time before there is a demonstrable effect". Perhaps then further discussions are needed around: (i) joining-up strategies and activities at national and local levels - a policy for rural transport and then being able to hold policy and decision makers to account on their commitments? Joining-up different transport options into rural hubs so that train timetables intertwine with those of buses, taxis and car share schemes to help people get to where they need to be? (ii) With reductions in public sector funding continuing, should transport solutions take people to services, services to people, or both? (iii) With statements on transport interspersed in the rural statement and initiatives spanning several Government Departments (and in many instances now being devolved to a local level in their implementation); how can we ensure that we have an up-to-date and accurate picture of rural transport demand, community needs and aspirations?