Spending cuts – don’t make bus passengers suffer

Claire Haigh
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THIS week’s Comprehensive Spending Review has already been characterised by rumours about further deep reductions to public spending after it was reported the Chancellor has signed off £11.5 billion in cuts.

But a new report published today by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee gives a clear warning about what the impact of funding reductions can have on the ground.

The Committee reveals that tight budgets, reductions in bus services, increases in fares and a further concentration of public services are worsening transport accessibility for vulnerable groups within society.

Committee chair Joan Walley MP, said:

“If the Chancellor cuts funding for bus services this week he will be making life harder for the young adults, pensioners, disabled and rural people that are already disadvantaged by the poor provision of affordable public transport in this country.”

“Growing numbers rely on public transport to get to job interviews or work, attend college or training, visit hospital or access other public services.”

“The Government must concentrate on coordinating transport schemes and making sure fares are affordable to ensure everyone has access to economic opportunities and public services.”

The 2010 Spending Review led to reductions in funding for local bus services in 70 per cent of local authorities in England and Wales.  It is clear that when the economy is still struggling, funding must be carefully allocated to places where it is needed most.

But an economy can only return to growth if people can get to work. Accessibility – to the workplace and to places to spend money – is vital and that is where the Chancellor needs to invest, not cut.

This is not about universal benefits such as free bus passes, it is about helping the young people, the parents and those who rely entirely on public transport to get to work.

In 2010, cuts announced by central government were felt locally – especially in the provision of bus services.

This is a government which says it is committed to investing in Britain’s infrastructure.

But two intriguing reports were published last week that gave a frank and comprehensive appraisal of the key challenges, and opportunities, facing our transport network.

The first, from think-tank New Economics Foundation, was formulated around the assertion that it is both worrying and surprising that the single largest transport investment in UK history, HS2, has only been assessed on its own merits rather than against what the £33 billion could achieve if it were to be invested more evenly across the UK transport network.

This is an important and interesting point. The public transport system, and the infrastructure on which it sits, is more than just main train lines and airports. Around two-thirds of public transport trips in Great Britain are actually made by bus – that’s 5.2 billion trips a year. With cuts threatening many areas of the transport network, especially bus routes, it is a momentous decision to prioritise one relatively small, albeit crucial, part of the network to such an extent.

Although the benefits of HS2 are palpable and I’m not advocating that we should not press ahead with plans – the Government seem not to have fully assessed the bigger picture in a strategic way.

This was one of the central fulcrums of a report released last week by the Institution of Civil Engineers. Although the report is unabashedly pro HS2, it outlines that overall in the UK the “absence of a clear strategy has meant that investments and improvement to our transport system have been slower to develop, are more expensive and deliver less”.

This is a damning indictment and one that we must heed.

Public transport ultimately exists to get people to work, to school, to the hospital, to the swimming pool and up and down, or even out of, the country. Additionally of course the infrastructure is a crucial artery linking businesses to one another and goods to consumers and so on. This is the bigger picture. Services and investment must make sure that it is improving connectivity for those who really need it.

Both reports expounded the hugely positive impact that transport investment and improvement can have – on the economy both locally and nationally, on jobs, on communities, on individuals. This is well documented and we at Greener Journeys have published a number of reports in this area.

It is not yet however well heeded by Government.

The Chancellor and the Government should recognise that HS2 is not a plan, it is part of a plan.

In recent years, as both the ICE and NEF reports recognise, buses have seen underinvestment.

The six main forms of public support for bus services have all been cut or have shrunk in real terms: Local Transport Authorities support for non commercially operated routes; national concessionary scheme funding; the Bus Services Operators Grant; capital spending; Local Education Authority Spending home to school transport and bus service information.

This must change – and the need for it to change was recognised on Monday by the Environmental Audit Committee.

Investment in buses joins the dots and enables other transport investment to breathe new life into the economy. Measures George Osborne should consider include:

  1. Recognising and embracing the cross-departmental benefits of bus spending: the Department of Work and Pensions benefits through reducing welfare spending by providing jobseekers with access to employment; the Department of Health benefits through public health benefits and through providing access to healthcare and reducing the cost of missed appointments; the Department for Education benefits through providing access to schools and colleges and of course transport and the wider economy through employment and growth.
  2. Ensuring greater parity with rail spending, which has been protected in every spending review and budget since the election
  3. Consider tax breaks for commuters who use buses, potentially extremely valuable for young people seeking and starting work
  4. Ensuring a more adequate system of appraisal for the value of bus networks to labour markets to allow councils and government to quantify their value to labour participation and productivity.

What is crucial is that the Government factor them into their plan, if indeed they plan on making one.

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