“The continuing decline in bus journeys emphasises the need to protect bus services and for councils to be able to invest in funding subsidised routes."
Bus journeys have plummeted by more than 300 million in just five years, falling to their lowest level in over a decade, according to latest figures, as new polling by the Local Government Association shows that the majority of residents want councils to decide how bus services are provided in their local area.
Latest government figures show there were 4.31 billion bus passenger journeys made in England in 2018/19 compared to 4.627 billion in 2014/15 – a drop of 317 million.
The Local Government Association is calling on the Government to give all councils oversight of local bus services so they can maintain and improve them, and protect local routes so older and vulnerable people don’t get left behind.
The LGA, which represents councils, says investing in bus services can provide a lifeline to older and vulnerable people who depend on local buses. It is also concerned that the decline in bus passenger journeys could cause increased congestion and poorer air quality in local communities.
This follows polling by Kantar commissioned by the LGA which found that 69 per cent of residents think local councils should be the main decision-makers on bus services.
The LGA has previously warned that nearly half of all bus routes are at risk, as the funding gap from government for the concessionary bus fare scheme is expected to grow from the estimated £652 million shortfall in 2017/18.
Concessionary bus fares are a legal requirement of councils which provide free, off-peak travel for older and disabled residents.
To help plug the funding gap, councils have been forced to reduce spending on discretionary concessionary fares across England, from £115 million in 2014/15 to £85 million in 2017/18 – a 26 per cent reduction. While in England, outside of London, spending on supported bus services is £122 million less than in 2010 – a drop of 33 per cent.
Discretionary concessionary fares include free peak travel, post-16 school transport, companion-free travel, or assistance for a young person’s travel.
The LGA says that to secure the future of bus services, the Government should introduce measures which close the concessionary fares funding gap, so councils can protect them, and give all councils automatic access to franchising powers and control over the Bus Service Operators’ Grant so that public subsidies can be better targeted.
LGA Transport spokesman Cllr David Renard said:
“Councils want to protect local bus services, which are a vital service and can be a lifeline for our most vulnerable residents, whether that is to go shopping, collect medication, attend doctor appointments or socialise with friends.
“The continuing decline in bus journeys emphasises the need to protect bus services and for councils to be able to invest in funding subsidised routes.
“Not only will this make sure we can provide bus services to those who rely on them, but it can also help to reduce congestion and improve air quality by reducing the number of vehicles on our roads.
“As our polling also shows, the vast majority of residents want to see councils take control over how bus routes operate in their local area. With proper funding and by giving all councils oversight through automatic franchising powers, councils will be better placed to boost ailing passenger numbers and enable more people to use the bus services they rely on every day.”
The Bus Services Act brought changes to how local buses are regulated and introduced new franchising powers for councils. However, franchising powers are only automatically available for Mayoral Combined Authorities, other areas have to seek the permission of the Secretary of State – the LGA is calling for all areas to have access to automatic franchising powers, as operates in London.