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Rural Bus Services

Volume 807: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2020


Asked by

My Lords, the Government are developing a national bus strategy to set out how national and local government and the private sector will come together to meet the needs of local communities, including those in rural areas. The Government have established a £20 million rural mobility fund to support demand-responsive services.

My Lords, over the last 10 years, around half of council-supported bus services have been lost. This has hit rural areas particularly badly. I am glad to hear from the Minister that the Government are taking some action on this, but do they accept that it is time to ensure that rural bus services do not disappear altogether and to look again at the deregulation arrangements introduced in 1986?

My Lords, we believe that local authorities have a significant role to play in ensuring that we protect rural bus services. To that extent, local authorities receive £43 million from BSOG, and in September 2019 we announced a further £30 million of local authority funding. Now we need to ensure that local authorities step up and support the more vulnerable services.

My Lords, in April last year the Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy was told about the spiral of decline in both the funding and provision of rural public transport. It recommended that the Government should review the different funding schemes, aiming to put them together in a single investment pot in each area, and then let local people develop integrated, demand-led, case-based systems. Has anything been done?

As I mentioned, the Government are working extremely hard on the national bus strategy. The sort of proposals that the noble Baroness outlined are the sort of things that we are looking at. It is very much time for local accountability for local bus services, taking into account the needs of the local community.

My Lords, it is good to hear that the Government are doing some planning on the issue of rural bus services, but it is not enough to keep pushing responsibility back to local councils when they simply do not have enough money to take forward anything like the amount of services necessary. In view of the fact that we need a national strategy to reduce all our carbon emissions, encourage people out of their cars and generally become better functioning members globally on the issue of climate change, surely the Government can see that funding councils so that they can do their job properly is the right way forward.

It was a little hard to hear the noble Baroness’s question but I believe it was about funding local councils. These considerations are of course being had as we think about the national bus strategy. However, I say to the noble Baroness that it is not just about money; it is also about skills and capacity. We need local authorities to boost their local transport teams so that they have the skills and capacity to plan the sort of improvements that we need in bus services.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the NFU. Does the Minister agree that rural bus services play a vital role in the well-being of communities, especially in less favoured areas such as the Staffordshire moorlands and the Peak District? Does she further agree that these services must be encouraged, assisted, promoted and funded in all such areas in every way possible?

My noble friend is quite right. I assure him that the national bus strategy will include measures suitable for all parts of the country, whether dense urban settings, market towns, sprawling suburbs or the most rural areas. We will need to work with local authorities; this is not something that can be dictated by national government. We will work with local authorities, particularly those in rural places, to ensure that they have appropriate plans in place.

My Lords, the most successful rural bus operations are those direct, regular inter-urban services that form a network over much of the country. If the Government intend the national bus strategy to be interested in developing truly rural services, are not further improvements to the existing network that I have described more likely to create a framework that could be built on by local authorities in developing their own truly rural services?

I partially agree with the noble Lord in that it is key for all local services, wherever they are, to be integrated with other modes, be they long-distance coach-type journeys or rail services provided between cities or over shorter distances. Integration is important, so to a certain extent it needs a guiding mind. We will be looking to local authorities to pick up the pen on that and take it forward.

My Lords, we all agree that public transport is essential for those who live in rural areas and do not have access to a car. However, does it all have to be provided by buses, which often do not run at the times when people want them, do not go from home to destination and back, and frequently lead to narrow country lanes being blocked by large vehicles? Can the Minister do more to promote demand-responsive, community-based services to complement those provided by the bus?

My noble friend is right: an empty double-decker bus careening through narrow country lanes simply will not do. One of the solutions that may be appropriate for rural areas is demand-responsive transport. That is why in September 2019 we launched the £20 million Rural Mobility Fund. We asked for expressions of interest and have had 53. I take great heart from that and at the moment we are reviewing those. We probably do not want to launch them now, in the middle of the pandemic, but we hope that will go on to prove what kind of demand-responsive transport works and what does not, and then we will be able to roll it out more broadly.

Half of households on low incomes and two-thirds of jobseekers do not have access to a car. Bus services are also crucial to rural economies and small local businesses. However, a study by Warwick University in 2019 found that over a decade the price of travelling by bus has risen by 39%, way above the level of inflation. Does the Minister accept that this has contributed to the decline in bus passengers and that it has been and is damaging, both socially and economically?

What the Minister accepts is that we must always strive to improve our bus services. In February 2020 the Prime Minister talked about his view for the bus network, with more high-frequency services and better bus prioritisation. With those two things, one automatically gets lower fares. If we can put all those services on cleaner, greener buses, that will be all to the good.

My Lords, an overreliance on short-term competition funding for the long-term task of transforming transport networks is inefficient and costly. What assessment has the Minister made of the Local Government Association’s call for capital expenditure to be funded through long-term secure grants to councils to plan a comprehensive pipeline of infrastructure and capacity improvements focused on the needs of local networks as a whole?

I have some sympathy with my noble friend in that longer-term funding can sometimes indeed be more efficient. However, it should be said that short-term funding and competitions for larger amounts of funding play an important role in how we fund transport infrastructure. In the case of bus infrastructure specifically, we will be looking to local authorities to plan bus priority measures and then we will outline how we can help and encourage them to put those in place.

My Lords, what keeps many buses, especially on rural routes, going is elderly people’s travelcards. Often, if I am on a bus, I know that most of the people going to the remote villages are travelcard holders. It is better now that it has been extended in Wales to other age groups. So I ask that, in the coming demand on council budgets, we safeguard these travelcards because without them we will not have the passengers or the routes.

My Lords, the Government support local authority spending by around £1 billion a year so that older and disabled people can travel on buses; £877 million of that is on statutory schemes, while £230 million is used on discretionary schemes, whereby local authorities decide to extend the scheme to other people. We are well aware of the importance of these concessionary payments to the bus operators, such that they continue services, and we support them.