My Lords, buses are a vital part of our public transport system and the Government are committed to supporting them. They can be particularly important in rural areas, where many people depend on their local bus service, but no single solution will work for all rural areas. The Government are providing funding and powers, most recently through the Bus Services Act 2017, so that local authorities can work in partnership with local bus operators to identify and support services that best fit the needs of individual communities.
My Lords, the rural bus network has been cut by 40% in the last 10 years, with further cuts planned, for example in Norfolk and Kent. Councils blame a £200 million shortfall when the Government reimburses them through the concessionary fares scheme. Many older people, as the Minister said, rely on this in isolated communities. Will the Minister agree to review funding for concessionary fares and to look at funding for community transport to replace bus services where they are no longer provided?
My Lords, last year the Government renewed our commitment to supporting older and disabled people. We recognise the importance of accessible and affordable transport and are therefore entirely committed to the concessionary fares. Through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, local authorities are provided with the funding to meet their statutory obligations over concessionary travel. Bus operators are reimbursed on the basis that they are no worse off for carrying concessionary pass holders. We issue guidance to help local authorities administer that concession, consistent with that principle.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the statistics given by the noble Baroness opposite show that the Government’s efforts simply have not produced results? Does she accept that it is not just about the disabled and whoever, but also about social and financial exclusion? We do everything within urban areas—we have bus lanes and walking places for shopping, and we have Uber—but rural areas are becoming the vulnerable community through lack of government support for all services.
My Lords, of course bus services are incredibly important in rural areas; we absolutely want to ensure that those communities are as well connected as they can be. I recognise the extra pressure placed on local authorities in more isolated areas. Where there is not enough demand for a bus route to be commercially viable in its own right, all local authorities have the power to subsidise bus services. Since 2014, we have devolved the bus service operators grant so we can pay up to £40 million directly to local authorities to help them support the services that their communities need.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the cutbacks of nearly 50% in local government finance from central government since 2010 have had some impact here? Has she any figures about the cutbacks in rural services in, for example, Conservative-controlled Surrey, which has already announced impending bankruptcy? Or even in Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire, which is in similar difficulties? Do the Government not accept any responsibility for these matters, or are they “devolved”, to quote the noble Lord opposite?
My Lords I fully appreciate the pressure that local authorities are under in making difficult choices as a result of ongoing financial pressures. I commend them for providing the services they do, but we think local authorities are best placed to provide supported bus services, reflecting local needs within available budgets. As I said, we have devolved the £40 million of the bus service operators grant, but there are obviously extra costs in providing services for rural areas, so we are giving an extra £81 million to the most sparsely populated areas in the rural services delivery grant.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that rural bus services, which in our part of Herefordshire are wholly inadequate, can be the lifeblood of isolated, small rural communities? Does she further recognise that sustaining communities of that sort can avoid spending—possibly considerable spending—in other areas of public expenditure?
My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord that buses can be a lifeline in rural areas. The Bus Services Act, which I mentioned earlier, provides extra powers for local authorities to work with bus operators to improve the bus services in rural areas. We are also encouraging local authorities to deliver better rural services through efforts such as our Total Transport pilot schemes, which have explored ways of commissioning publicly funded transport so that services and funding are able to go further.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one issue that has a perverse result is concessionary fares in rural bus areas? People travel out of towns into rural areas and the concessionary fares camouflage much of the subsidy that goes to rural bus fares. We support concessionary fares but, when they were set up, the local councils were not given the funding to run the level of service that has come into effect.
My Lords, as I said, we fully support the concessionary fare programme and we want to continue the £1 billion a year we spend through local authorities to guarantee that service. It certainly supports bus services and that is something we want to carry on with.
My Lords, I declare a former interest as the former chairman of London Buses. I agree with the noble Baroness that buses are a vital part of our community. They carry the poor, the old, the young and the sick. Labour would introduce regulations to designate and protect routes of critical community value, including those that serve local schools, hospitals and isolated settlements in rural areas. Why do the Government not copy those policies now?
My Lords, decisions on providing bus services are devolved to local authorities and, as I have said, we think that is right. We support local authorities with the bus service operators grant, and will absolutely continue to do so. As well as the devolution of the £40 million, we are reviewing the rest of that money to see whether we can spend it better and allow local authorities to use it better. However, local authorities are best placed to understand what their communities need and deliver their services. They are also democratically accountable to the people they serve.