Rural anger on bus funding

On the 5th April the Government announced its long-awaited funding allocations for Bus Service Improvement Plans.

The RSN’s Chief Executive, Graham Biggs, comments here:

“Well now we have it – or rather for most rural areas now you don’t!!

The headline to the Government’s announcement is misleading in referring to a £7 billion package to level up transport outside London. Only £1.08bn has been allocated to Bus Service Improvement Plans. £5.7bn is in respect of ‘City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement’ announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement.

I cannot recall the last time that so many rural councils voiced their anger at specific service funding allocations. Words like “complete waste of time, energy and resources” and “rural clearly doesn’t exist in the mind of Government” were commonplace. The suggestion that those not receiving funding did not show sufficient ambition rubbed salt into an open wound. Ambition must surely reflect where the service is now and be realistic in what can be achieved in given timescales – otherwise it is ambition doomed to fail

So, authorities (and operators) have spent the past 12 months developing a Bus Service Improvement Plan, followed by an Enhanced Partnership Plan and Scheme, which are now largely redundant. Most of the Enhanced Partnerships were, we believe, heavily caveated with “subject to the award of DfT funding”, as have many of the commitments required of operators.  Without the funding then, clearly, these commitments can no longer be met. That said it is clear the Enhanced Partnership arrangements have to remain in place as other funding (from Bus Service Operator Grant, for example) is conditional upon that. The offer of capacity support sufficient to employ an Enhanced Partnership Officer for the next three years is certainly helpful – but details are awaited.

Councils have been told “this is not a final no, and while we can make no promises, you should not give up hope of funding. It is possible that further BSIP funding will become available in the coming months. Other funding streams, such as round two of the Levelling Up Fund (for which applications close at 12:00 noon on Wednesday 6 July) can also support investment in aspects of BSIP”. Many we know have applied for Levelling Up Funds in the past without success – the feeling is that more funding is a pipe dream. We are still waiting for any news on a Rural Bus Strategy following the call for evidence over 12 months ago on “Future of transport: rural strategy”.

Councils had to publish and submit to the Government, their Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIP) by the end of October, 2022 – and formed their Enhanced Partnerships. This involved huge amounts of work in very tight timescales. Allocations were supposed to have been known by the end of February, 2022.

Only 31 of the 70 BSIP’s have been funded in the indicative allocations announced. These are three-year, capital and revenue allocation.

Whilst there are some allocations to rural County and Unitary Councils announced – and our congratulations to those of our members who were successful - across rural England Councils, and thousands of passengers have been left hugely disappointed. The whole process has, as the RSN feared, raised false expectations in rural communities.

In respect of the rural county/unitary areas which are to receive funding there are concerns that most of that will, in practice go into the more urban parts of those areas as negotiations with the government directs (they will not have received all they bid for).

Yes, there have been some piecemeal allocation of funding to reinstate long lost tendered services, but now rural areas, Councils and Operators face a much bigger crisis. As well as having no certainty of future (COVID) recovery funding beyond autumn this year there is ongoing revision to the “emergency” payment of Concessionary Fares reimbursement to operators and the reform of Bus Service Operator Grant (what was fuel duty rebate) remains on the horizon. With patronage hovering around the 80% mark nationally, many services show little sign of returning to commerciality. In addition, there are driver shortages in many areas. Rural Councils on the “not funded” list don’t stand much hope of replacing these with contracted replacements. Especially given the unfair funding for rural councils generally.

One of our member authorities in its submission to a Transport Select Committee Inquiry stated

“It also needs to be recognised that when we put bids in ourselves, for example for Active Travel, we are not just competing against authorities with higher population densities: we are also competing against them knowing that the judging criteria is skewed towards urban density. This does not adequately reflect the rural reality for our households, for whom access to facilities and services should be about equitable outcomes compared with those living in urban settings”.

The RSN endorses these sentiments.

In our Rural Lens Review of the National Bus Strategy, we said

“We are left wondering how much of the funding/opportunities will really come into rural areas and benefit rural communities?  Will rural proofing before the setting of policy details and specific budget allocations actually take place? One-off allocations are one thing but guaranteed on-going finance to LTAs to enable them to support essential, but non-commercial, services (including Demand Responsive Transport, across rural areas is essential”.

“The budget reductions by rural councils for bus support over the past decade have largely been because such support is discretionary expenditure and government support to meeting the costs of statutory services (adult and children’s social care in particular) has been woefully inadequate. These are issues which the Government must address as a matter of great urgency. The full range of rural delivery costs must be fully recognised and reflected in all future funding formulae”.

We expressed our concerns about the capacity of many rural authorities to achieve the Strategy’s objectives in the required timescales

We strongly recommend our member Councils whose BSIP has not received funding to seek the offered feedback from the Department of Transport and to keep us informed of that feedback so we can see if there are common features impacting on rural proposals”


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