Lessons for rural transport provision

Rural bus services have suffered as funding pressures have grown, but there is good practice and evidence of what works out there, finds Brian Wilson.

The Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) has published a report on The Future of Rural Bus Services in the UK.  This builds on its work over many years, which has included monitoring and reporting on bus service provision and funding.  The report is both a stock take of where we are now and an outline for a more sustainable way forward.

Across England bus support – in the form of local authority subsidy – has fallen by £103 million or by 33% between 2010/11 and 2016/17.  In some shire counties the cuts have been severe – North Yorkshire 78%, Central Bedfordshire 75% and West Sussex 64%.  Norfolk and Lancashire have both recently stepped back from making severe cutbacks following local concerns over their plans.

Evidence from the CBT’s annual Buses in Crisis reports show that each year another batch of shire areas has undergone service reviews and a scaling back of their subsidised bus routes.

The context for this is, of course, the sharp decline in local authority budgets, which have almost halved since the start of the decade.  Subsidising of loss making bus routes is discretionary, so it is unsurprisingly targeted by local authorities faced with other spending pressures from their mandatory services, such as adult social care.

The CBT identify this as being particularly a rural problem, highlighting the very different situation in urban areas where most services (or daytime services, at least) are commercial and require no public subsidy in order to operate.

Bus operators have meanwhile faced some cost increases, including those that resulted from changes to the funding of the statutory concessionary fares scheme (in 2011) and to their fuel duty rebate (in 2012).  This has squeezed margins on some routes which were commercial, if only just.

As the report puts it, citing a former bus manager, “rural buses are at the extreme edge of the spectrum, because they carry fewer people per mile operated and are therefore less secure economically.  They are most at risk regardless of being commercial or supported”.

The outcome has been a fall in the number of passengers travelling on subsidised bus routes.  In shire areas of England this has amounted to a fall of 32% in passenger journeys over the five year period from 2011/12 to 2016/17.

As the CBT detail, there is a history of policy initiatives which have been introduced to address concerns about rural transport provision.  These include the Rural Transport Development Fund, Rural Bus Challenge, Rural Transport Partnerships and Parish Transport Grants, and more recently the Community Minibus Fund and Total Transport pilot projects.

For the most part these initiatives have encouraged a growth in community transport (and often demand-responsive) solutions.  Many have proved successful, including well known examples such as the Call Connect service in Lincolnshire.  However, the CBT notes that the policy initiatives come-and-go, whilst the funding they offer is typically short-term.  As a result quite a few local schemes have not survived long.

The report contains some interesting examples how local authorities, transport operators and communities have worked together, innovated and sought to deal with funding constraints.

Staffordshire County Council took time to work closely with communities and operators.  Some threatened bus routes continue for now on a commercial basis or with only de minimus funding from the Council.  Some Parish Councils agreed to contribute towards their retention.  The Moorlands Connect service was retained, but charges higher fares, in a move supported by its users.

Four separate community transport operators in the Forest of Dean area agreed to adopt the same brand – Forest Routes – in a move to create “a sense of network”, which made their services more visible and easier to promote.  CBT underline their view that, too often, rural transport gives an unhelpful impression of being a complex patchwork.

Cornwall Council has used some of its Devolution Deal funding to sustain and improve rural transport.  This includes the introduction of smart ticketing and better facilities at bus stations and bus stops.  The aim is to develop more interchange with the rail line and to have multi-model tickets.

CBT conclude that rural transport should be built around six principles which are known to work.  They are:

  • Having a framework of inter-urban buses on main routes (and/or rail routes);
  • Using demand responsive provision in areas of low demand;
  • Involving communities in the development of transport services;
  • Harnessing wider provision, including taxis and private hire, as part of the network;
  • Using integrated ‘network’ approaches to achieve efficient provision; and
  • Using technology to improve service information, ticketing and booking.

They also put in a plea for longer term and more consistent funding.  The overarching message is for “a more comprehensive, consistent and concerted approach” to transport planning and networks, in order to meet the needs of rural communities.  The Total Transport pilot projects (although themselves another short-term initiative) are seen as having taken a useful approach: namely, exploring how transport integration can deliver efficiencies and help sustain rural transport provision.

This article was written by Brian Wilson whose consultancy, Brian Wilson Associates, offers policy research and support.  Contact is at brian@brianwilsonassociates.co.uk  Areas of specialism include rural policy and proofing, local economic strategies, community action, service delivery and neighbourhood planning.  He is a Director of Rural England CIC.  He is currently a Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords Select Committee on the rural economy.


Campaign for Better Transport home page:

The Future of Rural Bus Services in the UK report:

Latest Buses in Crisis report:


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