TRANSPORT is essential in providing people with access to work, learning, health care, food shops and leisure activities. Amid falling budgets in public services and investment in key infrastructure projects – from HS2 to growth schemes on motorways – how can we balance the demand for economic growth with tight budgets to make strides in transport provision in the countryside? Jessica Sellick investigates.
Back in 2011, the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) published six reports to raise the profile of rural transport issues. These considered how rural people might be travelling in 2030 and how understanding behaviour could provide demand responsive solutions. Although the reports were wide-ranging, all showed that while efficiencies and savings needed to be made, there was scope for ensuring the viability of transport in rural areas.
Two years on, these findings remain pertinent, with one respondent to the Rural Insight Survey describing how: "we don't have much to hand, our nearest services are 6 miles away...there's no public transport in our valley at all...the nearest petrol station is 5 miles away (expensive)...or 12 miles away (better priced). It's not easy living out here and getting more expensive all the time". Similarly, the State of Rural Services reports, compiled annually by the RSN, found people living in villages and dispersed settlements to be travelling 10,000 miles per year on average (42% higher than the average figure for England) and that they were more likely to make these journeys by car – even if they were living on low incomes. Taken as a collective, this work raises issues around accessibility, affordability and availability. How, then, can we make sure rural transport is within reach? I offer three points.
First, a joined-up strategic policy setting out how transport should be provided for rural communities is lacking. At the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) annual lecture in November 2012, the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, highlighted the need for good transport in rural areas: "the further you are from towns, services, jobs and friends, the more important transport becomes. That's why rural Britain needs good transport just as much as urban Britain. In fact it always has...So if you accept that we need good transport to live our lives and expand our economy then two questions come to mind. How do you provide it so that rural people can benefit too? And how can you make sure the beauty of Britain doesn't suffer?" The Minister answered these questions with reference to 'quiet lanes' in Derbyshire, keeping the Concessionary Travel Scheme, supporting community transport, a £600 million Local Sustainable Transport Fund, revising Traffic Signs Regulations and looking at ways of giving Councils a greater say over speed limits (e.g. creating 40mph zones in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty).
Yet the DfT's own figures on 'households with good transport access to key services or work in urban and rural areas' show decline between 2007 and 2011. For town/fringe areas the figure declined from 86% of households in 2007 to 83% in 2011; over the same period the figures for villages decreased markedly (from 52% to 27%) and for hamlet/isolated dwellings (from 41% to 29%). The DfT will be updating these figures in July 2013. The DfT's 'Transport for Everyone' Plan sets out how operators, local councils and the Department can help to make it easier for people using public transport – particularly those with disabilities - to get to where they need to go. For rural residents the Plan states that the DfT is working with local authorities and the Community Transport Association (CTA) 'to examine the scope for more flexible services' by increasing awareness of community transport services and promoting taxi and car sharing. Unlike other sections in the Plan where timescales are provided, this rural component remains 'under consideration'.
In addition to the DfT, the Rural Statement (published in September 2012 by Defra) sets out a range of policy initiatives – from funding a national Wheels to Work coordinator for 2012/13 to enable young people in rural areas without sufficient public transport to travel to work by motorbike, to investing £10 million in both 2011/12 and 2012/13 in a Community Transport Fund to help Local Authorities develop locally responsive transport solutions. Transport further forms part of the Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU) analysis and monitoring of rural conditions (Evidence Plan).
If good transport is needed in rural areas to 'live our lives and expand our economy', will these policy initiatives from the DfT and Defra achieve this? The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), report for Defra and BIS last year on community learning in rural areas found the default position was one of public transport being so poor that it was impossible to plan educational opportunities around it. Whilst providers did time provision in market towns and larger settlements to fit with available transport (e.g. avoiding early morning starts, finishing to allow children to be collected from school), essentially the use of a car was viewed as a prerequisite for taking part in education.
Secondly, funding and the arrangements that underpin rural transport provision are in a state of flux which may cause the DfT's figures to plummet further. The prospect of further spending reductions and the devolution of transport funding without ring-fencing fails to recognise how rural areas tend to have a higher proportion of supported bus services. On the one hand, the Better Bus Areas fund will allow local councils to take control of some of the funding that bus operators get through the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) with some additional cash from the Department for Transport (DfT). In return, Councils will have to show that they are working in partnership with bus companies in their area. On the other hand, with operators needing to rely upon Councils now to reimburse their costs (from a capped grant which may or may not increase in the future to cover rising fuel and running costs), will we see bus services become less frequent, full price fare increases, and a reduction in routes? Although the impact of these changes will be felt in urban places as well – with a study on Buses and Economic Growth by the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds revealing 70% of rural dwellers rarely or never used the bus (compared to just 20% of their urban counterparts) – the financially marginal nature of much rural service provision makes it much more vulnerable.
For those RSN readers that do have a car you face higher costs for fuel. Statistics produced by Defra on diesel and petrol prices in rural areas found people living in settlements with populations of less than 10,000 paid 1.9 pence per litre or 1.4% more at the pump compared to urban areas. With a weak pound and rising price of oil on the international market influencing petrol prices, the amount you pay at the pumps is predicted to continue to rise in 2013.
Thirdly, there are practical examples of how rural transport challenges are being tackled at a local level that respond to the CRC's call in 2008. In Herefordshire, the Network St Albans partnership is introducing affordable tickets that can be used on different operators, while the DfT is supporting a smart ticketing pilot project across Norfolk. Although some of this fits with the Competition Commission's call for multi-operator ticketing, it is thought the DfT will stop short of legislating on this. The Dales Integrated Transport Alliance (DITA) is comprised of eight community 'hubs' in the Yorkshire Dales that provide advice on all forms of transport. In adult and community learning services, East Riding of Yorkshire Council has a Single Equality Scheme, South Northants runs Move-In4ward and Staffordshire Council facilitates community learning groups which all seek to address car dependency identified by the NIACE. It is worth remembering that many of these examples are supported by Town and Parish Councils, Rural Community Councils, local groups and residents. To keep updated, the Community Transport Association (CTA) and Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) publish a 'State of the Sector' report and the Plunkett Foundation documents enterprising approaches to community transport.
Jessica is a rural practitioner at Rose Regeneration which has particular empathy and enthusiasm for rural and coastal issues. Work currently being undertaken includes: supporting a Rural Growth Network (RGN) pilot area, researching farmer networks (for the Royal Agricultural Society of England), undertaking two pieces of work for Defra (a review of the Leader Programme & alternative models of service delivery) and developing detailed pictures of the socio-economic conditions of landscape scale areas.