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Issues raised at the 19th June meeting of the Rural Impacts Stakeholder Forum (RISF)

The Rural Impacts Stakeholder Forum (RISF) was established in March 2020 to enable open and regular dialogue between key rural stakeholder organisations and Defra on the impact of COVID-19 on rural communities and businesses.

Members of the Forum meet with Defra officials on a weekly basis, with Lord Gardiner, the Minister for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity in attendance when his diary permits.

The material coming out of this meeting can be seen below:

→ Read a note which RSN circulated to all attendees following consultation with our RSP members who are involved with Rural Transport here

→ Read the minutes of the meeting here

→ Read the note of discussions of the Rural Tourism Stakeholder Roundtable (Thursday 18th June) here


Key Messages

  • Covid 19 has had a major negative impact on passenger numbers and bus operator income; passenger numbers went down to about 10% of normal and have broadly stayed there, although signs of some modest pick-up in the last week or so.
  • In the short term, this has been offset by CBSSG and now CBSSG Restart payments by Treasury - these are temporary payments, and there has to be considerable concern for the medium term (even as soon as this Autumn).
  • Government messaging has been consistently not to use public transport – people will make other arrangements, undermining the longer term viability of the network, potentially using less sustainable transport, question as to if and when messaging is changed back to the Decarbonising Transport agenda.
  • A different funding and regulatory model is urgently required if buses are to be maintained in rural areas.

Social distancing – reduction in service

  • Reduces the practical capacity of vehicles by up to 75% - the same costs are incurred in operation but a maximum of 20-25% of the revenue can be collected.
  • Operators have been running only around 10% of their services - an enormous impact on rural services, which had fewer buses to begin with.
  • Rural people tend to be more reliant upon buses for all essential journeys – source April 2019 Statistical Digest of Rural England
  • Reduction in revenue is manageable as long as the Government’s CBSSG Restart grant is available, but does nothing to accommodate those who are potentially left behind by the bus!
  • The practicality of operating scheduled duplicates isn’t feasible on most rural services as neither the vehicles nor the drivers are available, even if the funding is.
  • If services only run every two hours or only twice a day, it is likely that would-be passengers will just not travel - rural communities will feel this loss in service far harder than better-served urban communities.
  • The real shock to the operating system is likely to be on 15 June when retailers are once more permitted to trade
  • DFT advised authorities that they reinstate the “no free travel before 0930” rule for concessionary passengers, but they have not mandated this.
  • There is much anecdotal evidence of ENCTS cardholders travelling daily to buy a pint of milk – just to get out i.e. for mental health and loneliness reasons.
  • Potential risk of ENCTS cardholders preventing key workers being able to travel.

Contactless Payments

  • Bus operators are encouraging contactless payment but not all have their own WiFi nor a good signal for their ticket acceptance machines to connect.
  • Problems of internet access in rural areas is well known.
  • There is no clarity about whether passengers would be allowed to travel if only able to pay cash or if their payment card transaction failed - given the infrequency of bus services, there would be no option to try again on the following bus.

Public Transport Messaging

  • With governmental messaging urging people to avoid public transport but to walk or cycle instead, it’s possible that some rural-dwellers will try to follow that advice.
  • In rural areas without pavements and with narrow roads, both options are likely to prove dangerous, especially if  more people use their private cars to avoid using the bus.
  • Many schools are carrying out risk assessments which recommend students do not use public transport - resulting in lower-income families being unable to send children to school and quiet roads being congested by families which can afford to take their child to school by private car.
  • Fear that the mixed messaging coming out of government about the safety of public transport pushes everyone to increased car use – even car sharing has been advocated as an acceptable way to travel. 
  • The message of “save capacity for key workers” is the right one. 
  • Saying “don’t travel by public transport” is not the right message – it is causing misconceptions of safety. 

Tracking research by Transport Focus taken between 5th and 7th June (their week 6 report, issued 12 June) shows:

  1. The proportion of people who will be happy to use public transport when restrictions are lifted remains constant at about 20% (this week 22%).
  2. The proportion of people who won’t use public transport unless social distancing is in place remains constant at about 70% (this week 71%).
  3. Of people who previously used public transport:
    1. 48% said more likely to drive
    2. 24% said more likely to cycle
    3. 43% said more likely to walk

Obviously there is some overlap here so figures are not precise and anyway represent people’s expressed views, but it indicates bus use is likely to remain low.

School Transport

  • School transport has stopped in most areas which again hits rural communities hardest.
  • With no clear idea about whether schools are safe to return to or even likely to stay open in the current confusion, it’s not clear that students would be able to use public transport to get to school or whether they’d be penalised for lateness if their first bus is full.
  • School returns will have a huge impact but thus far it is not a massive problem as many schools have elected not to restart or to stagger their return. 
  • As school returns grow there will be a need to stagger class start times within schools in order to allow transport to be provided within social distancing rules – but the costs will increase as staff hours and miles will be at least x2 or x3 to achieve this. 
  • Many schools services are provided by companies which are predominantly coach focussed, rather than local bus.  Their businesses have been even harder hit, and state support has been much lower (other than for staff furloughing) leading many to go out of business already. 
  • There is a risk that there will be insufficient operator resource available to accommodate the demand for rural school buses, although this is likely to be offset by parental desires to drive their offspring to school – hardly a desirable outcome.

Transport Funding

  • Without the return of passengers lost, the remaining commercial rural bus services will be lost without government (or local) support, and local authorities will need increased and ring fenced budgets to retain their existing supported networks and to rebuild what will otherwise be lost.
  • Appears little interest at government level on the plight of coach companies, which are often used to supply school transport, it’s possible that many services relied upon by rural communities will not survive this crisis.
  • Those services supplied by bus companies are also not being funded centrally so bus operators whose finances pre-crisis were already marginal, may also shut up shop, leaving a major issue for Local Authorities to pick up at the point when there will be many urgent calls on their time and funds.

Future Provision and Projected Trends

  • As we emerge from lockdown, many people have lost/will lose their employment; others will remain working from home. 
  • A higher proportion of older people are in self isolation and will be less inclined to use public transport afterwards, with public health impacts and undermining the longer term viability of the bus network.
  • People have adjusted to online retail and leisure – and the major leisure attractors will be the last to reopen as they are the hardest to enforce distancing. 
  • The demand base for public transport is already decimated and unlikely to return to pre pandemic levels even in medium term.
  • Bus Industry Monitor and Systra have both, separately, assessed the medium term fall in bus use as being between 14% and 26%, so average 20%. 
  • A 20% average reduction into the foreseeable future is a figure being suggested and reflects experience elsewhere in the world following major external shocks.
  • This will impact rural and urban bus services but on balance, probably, rural services more, since growth in unemployment forecast to hit younger adults harder than most, and this is a particularly important source of bus use in rural areas.
  • Clear fact is that with rural bus service margins in the 5% to 10% region, a 20% reduction is unsustainable, and under current financing and regulatory regime, many rural bus services likely to fail.   This will bring considerable rural isolation, leading to loneliness and likely mental health consequences.
  • A different funding and regulatory model is urgently required if buses are to be maintained in rural areas.

Good news

Exceptional work is being done by small rural bus and coach companies and many Community Transport operators in keeping isolated people and communities supplied with essential goods during this crisis.

  1. Chair’s introduction and welcome (Edward Barker)
  • Edward welcomed forum members to the 13th meeting of the RISF (see Annex A – Attendees).
  1. COVID-19 impacts on rural transport (Paul Nash, DfT)
  • DFT set out their approach to managing the impact of COVID19 on public transport in rural areas. Buses carried 20% of the pre-COVID-19 passengers due to social distancing restrictions. Government’s main response has been to provide financial support. In March, financial support enabled people (e.g. key workers) to carry out essential journeys. In May they moved into the restart phase with financial support facilitating an increase in services which will run until 3 August. The restart phase sees DfT working across government to put further support in place, including the restart grant for buses. DfT are working with DfE to find solutions to the demand placed on services by the return to school in September. DfT feed advice into PHE and SAGE advice.
  • RSN highlighted a resource issue whereby younger family generations will not want to take on a struggling enterprise in privately own bus companies.
  • Stakeholders called for communication to encourage the public to utilise public transport. There would need to be a strong shift in communications as government messaging has, to date, been around not using public transport unless necessary.

Action – Barbara Jones (Defra) to respond to RSN feedback once received.

Action – Secretariat to ensure DfT attend the Forum again to brief members on progress with managing the impact of COVID19 on public transport in rural areas.

  1. Topical updates

Test and Trace and Local Outbreak Control Plans (Bill Parish)

Paper 1 -

  • Defra’s priority is to ensure that the guidance takes into account implementation practicalities and is clearly communicated – particularly as tourism re-opens. Defra’s role is to support government decisions on relaxation of the restrictions on tourism, e.g. social distancing) ahead of the review date (which remains 4 July).
  • Defra is working with DHSC on a set of action cards, designed to be used by local authorities and which outline interventions and options of how to prevent and contain the virus. Consideration is being given to whether there should be an action card for ‘open spaces’ or ‘facilities in open space e.g. toilets, cafés.
  • Defra is working with DHSC and the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) on how test and trace will work in practice.
  • ‘Contain’ is likely to operate at a local level – with Local Resilience Forums and local authorities working with PHE to manage any ‘outbreaks’. ACRE flagged that there were clear differences of approach between local authorities taking either a sector or place based approach to local outbreak control plans – resulting in a lack of flexibility.

Action – Secretariat to ensure there is a future topical update to feed back on:

  • how Defra are engaged in the development of the App
  • the effect of a diversity of approach to local outbreak control plans on rural communities.
  • the powers of local authorities to enforce local lockdowns.

Environmental transition routes (Rob Bradburne)

  • Stakeholders were briefed on the role of the CSA and how Defra is feeding into SAGE - for example Defra’s ‘Environmental transition routes’ report analyses virus transmission pathways (through air, water, surfaces, food, water) in outdoor environments. This will feed into consideration as to whether we need the afore mentioned action card for outdoor spaces.
  • Modellers have confirmed that the R rate is applicable to both urban and rural areas and a differentiation does not need to be made.

Action - ACRE to share data, to support the modelling work, with Rob Bradburne.

Action – Stakeholders to suggest new topics or specific questions for scientific investigation by Defra.

  1. Update from Defra
  • The 26 June Forum meeting will focus on rural tourism (including feedback from the Rural Tourism Stakeholder Roundtable on 18 June and how Defra are working with MHCLG and DCMS on the restart of rural tourism).
  • The 3 July Forum meeting will focus on economic impacts and rural business recovery.

Action – Stakeholders to raise specific issues via Bryony Mines by cop the preceding Monday.

  1. Statistical monitor update (Stephen Hall)

Paper 2: COVID-19 Rural Impacts Monitor

  • In the ‘changes in where people are’ section, stakeholders noted an increase in the number of people visiting parks and outdoor public spaces.

Action – Stakeholders to suggest new topics or specific questions that that they think new data could answer, via Bryony Mines.

  1. AOB (Sarah Severn)
  • Plunkett Foundation raised the issue of barriers to accessing bounce back loans, suggesting that the banking industry have a selective approach to providing this facility to businesses. CLA and RSN commented that banks were prioritising current customers rather than refusing to give loans to non-customers. Defra were asked to work with BEIS or HMT to resolve the issue.

Action – James Alcock to email Bryony setting out the details of the issue so that our Rural Businesses Team can consider.


Agenda Item 1 Immediate re-start plans for the Tourism Sector – issues:

  • Visitor economy has been heavily impacted especially pre-Easter timing risking “three winter’s scenario”. There were real fears over the potential for a second wave and the impact that could cause.
  • Requests for:
    • advanced notice of reopening so tourism businesses/attractions can plan properly [takes time to un-furlough and train staff and prepare especially micro businesses such as those on the coast or on farm];
    • guidance on social distancing;
    • a strong communication strategy that tourists are welcome and that it is safe for them to visit destinations. Both rural communities and rural tourism businesses are nervous about reopening and urgent Government intervention is needed to reassure.
  • Coast and countryside are seen as the least risky options as visitor destinations but their management is also an issue for DMOs.
  • Renewed call to look at extending business support to businesses and organisations who are not able to take advantage of the current support packages to prevent them from permanently closing. For example, waterways businesses.
  • Issues remain with tourism businesses not being able to claim for business interruption loans through their insurance policies who are now in turn worried about the cost of next year’s premiums. Businesses are also experiencing cash flow issues that grants and loans are not covering.
  • Government needs to ensure that targeted grants are being paid out fairly without prioritising urban businesses.
  • Test and trace causing concerns for visitor economy (certainty of bookings – if potential visitors are identified as needing to self-isolate and can’t turn up as a result)
  • We should also consider the role of rural towns and high streets where SMEs may not successfully reopen at the end of the furlough scheme. This is in relation to concerns they will not be able to meet social distancing rules. .
  • Important to consider the wider contribution made by rural cultural sector, e.g. events and festivals and its impact on businesses supplying these events should they not go ahead.
  • Important to ensure farm based businesses and their diversified businesses are being supported and not overlooked by Government.
  • Concerns about access to the countryside and the need for strong messaging around visitors needing to abide by the countryside code.
  • Need to try and disperse people beyond the usual visitor “honey pots” - but not just displacing them to places lacking facilities (areas are beginning to open and provide toilets and car parks, but there isn’t a consistent approach).
  • Pressure is being felt in ordinary countryside beyond attractions e.g. paths and rights of way and beauty spots which may not have facilities for managing visitors.
  • All navigational authority facilities are open. These are largely rural but there is limited boat use because overnight stays are not currently permitted. Recreational boating hoping to be one of the first tourism businesses to recover as these do not need overnight stays to operate.
  • Data on impact of COVID-19 not helpful/accurate particularly as National Parks and AONBs are not included.

Agenda Item 2 - Longer term recovery issues: opportunities, risks, and what Government should be considering to best support tourism recovery in rural areas

  • Tourism Sector Deal could be a useful tool for longer term recovery planning but recovery needs to benefit local economies and communities.
  • Need support packages until at least the Spring of 2020 to aid recovery e.g. having to pay deferred VAT by March cited as an issue of concern for tourism businesses as this would come in advance of the 2020 season opening. Need to also identify businesses that have not received support.
  • Properly resourcing and supporting DMO’s is key so they can work with tourism businesses and support recovery.
  • Need to look at infrastructure around tourism e.g. reliable digital connectivity, skills and sustainable transport. Transport options to get into the countryside are not getting funded and this is an issue. Good transport and digital connectivity could help attract young people to rural areas and even encourage them to live there.
  • Easing of regulations by local and central government could allow a boost of £4bn per year.
  • Important to remember that the tourism industry is seasonal with the weather impacting hugely on visitor numbers and activities so we need to grow year-round visitor economy
  • Experiences that connect people to the countryside will close the gap between the visitor and the people who live in the countryside.
  • Some sectors are dependent on the domestic market so a sustainable staycation campaign is needed to encourage British holidaymakers not to travel abroad and to attract new audiences to the countryside. It should recognise that not all areas can present a winter offer (e.g. coastal and boating) which could limit the value of an extra bank holiday in October. Need to look at what areas can offer.
  • FMD and COV-19 have highlighted the vulnerability of rural economies that are dependent on tourism. There is concern about over-reliance on tourism for rural areas – need to look again at rebalancing the rural economy so it can become more resilient to such shocks.
  • Important to remember that rural businesses are interlinked and this should be recognised as an opportunity for rural communities to reconnect to their local community.
  • Important to note the interdependencies and connection between rural and urban - e.g. where urban doesn’t view rural as simply a place to visit but as a place to invest.
  • Government actions could include: an extra bank holiday either this or next year to aid recovery (though recognising it won’t save tourism businesses); a loyalty card system like air miles – money spent in rural hospitality businesses to be used against other trips or ploughed back into the local economy.
  • Government must recognise that local authorities are in a difficult place and in certain cases possibly close to bankruptcy because of need to act on COVID-19 - need to be properly resourced to facilitate return of visitors.


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