Reversing the decline in rural bus services

Reversing the decline in rural bus services

Changing lifestyles, flexible working, funding cuts and the regulatory environment are forcing rural bus services into decline, according to a consultation paper published by Bus Users UK.

In rural areas in particular, buses have provided a lifeline to education opportunities, employment, health care and social services. They also support local economies, build social connections and reduce congestion and pollution. Over the past two decades, however, rural bus services have experienced a ‘perfect storm’ of rising operational costs, increasing regulation, particularly for community transport providers, funding cuts from local authorities, and a lack of competition to run services.

Rural buses: reversing the decline examines the reasons behind the fall in rural bus services and looks at the costs in terms of rising inequality, social isolation and deprivation. It sets out a 10 point plan to regenerate the industry and ensure that rural transport meets the needs of local communities.

The report calls for reform of the Traffic Commissioners to have regard for the interests of bus users, modernisation of the role of the DVSA, for local authorities to take a more consumer-led approach to transport, and for local partnership working to be a requirement between local authorities and bus operators.

It also calls for a trial for new models of rural bus provision built on community interest or cooperative principles.

According to Claire Walters, Chief Executive of Bus Users: “Creative and innovative solutions to the rural transport crisis are urgently needed, but will only be possible with reform of the bodies and the regulatory environment that govern it.”

“Access to affordable and reliable transport in rural areas doesn’t just improve the lives of the people it serves: it has wider social, environmental and economic advantages that benefit us all.”

Click here to read the report in full

A 10 point plan to reverse the decline in rural bus services

  1. Reform the role of Traffic Commissioners to have regard for the interests of bus users. Thereview of regulation announced by the Senior Traffic Commissioner in May 2019 should be considered urgently if rural bus networks are to be saved. The DVSA’s role should be modernised to make it more accessible and user-friendly, and it should be bought under the direct control of the Regulator, following the Scottish model.
  2. Lower barriers of entry to the industry without compromising safety, to encourage new start businesses. Financial Standing regulations in particular should be reformed to remove discrimination against SMEs and rural areas.
  3. Reform Section 63 of the 1985 Transport Act to give local authorities a ‘duty’ rather than a ‘power’ under the Act. Require them to set out a transport plan on which the public should be consulted.
  4. Reform the local transport responsibilities of local authorities to promote a consumer-led approach. Local authorities should be required to have a rural bus strategy, updated and rolled forward at regular intervals, and delivered in accordance with Local Plan Reviews to align transport provision with new housing.
  5. Issue guidance on school start and finish times. The 1944 Education Act requires free transport to be provided to school: any changes to these times has consequences on cost and air quality. School governors do not have to have regard to the cost of changes and simply externalise them. They should have to compensate LAs for this extra cost, with funding ring-fenced for rural bus network provision.
  6. Reform community transport regulations. While CT operators are non-commercial entities, their operations can be so successful they become commercial. In these cases, LAs can put the service out to tender, with the reverse also being possible when a commercial service ceases to be viable. This has no impact on passengers. Making the costs the same for both, even though there is no direct competition, will force CT operators out of the local bus sector. The concept of ‘short distance’ should be based on the need to access essential services rather than mileage.
  7. Increase rural accessibility. Commercial operations are not sufficient to meet all the transport needs of rural residents and businesses. However, commercially-run inter-urban routes, fed by local routes from rural areas, should be encouraged. This increases rural accessibility and channels revenue to trunk routes, making them more sustainable.
  8. Trial ideas for new models of rural bus provision built on community interest or cooperative principles. All regulations should be suspended for the trail, with the exception of safety regulations, to encourage new start entrepreneurs and genuinely creative approaches.
  9. Make local partnership working a requirement between local authorities and bus operators of any kind. This could help resolve rural transport problems without the need for yet more regulation.
  10. Address the transport needs of the rural population. The Office of National Statistics differentiates rural, deep rural and semi-rural, but all have transport needs which are not currently being met. Joined-up approaches are essential to ensure that no community is left isolated and that the gap between rural and urban dwellers in terms of social isolation, poverty and loneliness, is not widened.

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