The National Rural Conference 2024

The Rural Services Network (RSN) is thrilled to announce the National Rural Conference 2024, taking place from 16th to 19th September. This virtual event, accessible via Zoom, is the premier gathering for senior officers, members, policymakers, and rural service professionals.
Further information and booking details can be found here

The Decline of Bus Services in Rural England: A Deepening Divide

In the face of a widening gap between rural and urban public transport services, England's rural communities are grappling with a bus provision crisis that underscores a growing divide in accessibility, mobility, and social cohesion. Analysis by the Channel 4 News FactCheck Team alongside insights in BusUsers UK’s 2024 Manifesto for Buses reveal a concerning trend of declining bus services, with rural areas bearing the disproportionate brunt of these reductions.

A Decade of Decline and Its Impacts

From 2011 to 2023, England saw a 20% reduction in bus service provision, adjusting to a 28% per capita decrease amidst population growth. This trend, briefly mitigated by pandemic-related funding, resumed its downward trajectory, leaving rural regions in a precarious position. The withdrawal of essential bus routes has isolated residents, particularly affecting the elderly and vulnerable, from critical services and social opportunities.

Rural Yorkshire and the Northwest exemplify the severity of cuts, with bus miles per person plummeting significantly. Despite a uniform decline across the country, regional disparities highlight an uneven impact, exacerbated in areas like Rutland, Shropshire, and Slough, where bus provision has reduced dramatically. These cuts reflect broader issues of operational costs, falling passenger numbers, and the challenging economics of rural transport, forcing difficult decisions on route subsidies at the local council level.

In response, the government's investment of £3.5 billion since the pandemic and initiatives like the £2 fare cap aim to bolster bus services. Yet, such measures have struggled to counteract the overarching trend of decline. Community-led efforts to subsidise services offer a glimmer of hope but fall short of replacing the lost connectivity once provided by a more comprehensive bus network.

A Call for Legislative Action and Support

The urgency of addressing the decline in rural bus services is captured in an Early Day Motion tabled and signed in parliament on 21 February 2024, which states:

"That this House recognises the dire state of bus services throughout the country and is concerned that bus provision has decreased by 28% since 2011; understands the important role buses have to play in the fight against climate change; acknowledges the growing isolation of vulnerable and elderly people in rural areas due to cuts to bus services; realises the benefit buses have in providing young people with independence and mobility to enhance their opportunities, wellbeing and overall quality of life; supports the role buses have in creating an integrated and accessible public transport system; is alarmed by the behaviour of some bus companies holding local authorities to ransom over the continuation of routes; calls for additional funding to restore bus routes and create new ones; encourages local authorities to work collaboratively to provide bus services across Council boundaries; and urges the Government to pass the Public Transport (Rural Areas) Bill, which would guarantee minimum levels of public transport to areas of education, employment and health services in rural areas."

This motion reflects a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted impacts of bus service reductions and stresses the need for targeted investment, policy reforms, and collaborative efforts to rejuvenate rural bus provision.

Local Insights: Shropshire

Amid this national crisis, certain localities are forging paths toward innovative solutions, despite facing significant challenges. Cllr Motley of Shropshire provides a firsthand account of these efforts, shedding light on the unique difficulties rural areas face in maintaining and improving public transport services.

"Public transport in Shropshire is very tricky; the county is very big and highly rural/sparsely populated," Cllr Motley explains. Most routes in Shropshire require subsidies from the council, a necessity almost unheard of in urban/metropolitan areas. This starkly highlights the scarcity of buses in rural regions, a critical issue that Cllr Motley and her colleagues have sought to address through initiatives like the Government’s Bus Back Better funding programme-efforts that have, thus far, been met with disappointment.

Cllr Motley's tenure as the holder of the transport portfolio from 2021-2022 was marked by ambition to introduce a system of demand-responsive, electric, or highly efficient diesel, smaller buses in the rural areas. These would not only serve the immediate mobility needs of rural residents but also connect them to larger transport hubs, thereby integrating them into the broader network of public transportation.

Despite previous setbacks, there's a glimmer of hope with the potential redirection of funds from the HS2 cancellation. "We now hear we may get some funding... it does appear that at last government is beginning to understand the problem and acknowledge the need to support the rural areas more effectively," Cllr Motley remarks, pointing toward a future where rural public transport can be revitalised.

The Path Forward

The disparity in bus service provision between rural and urban areas emphasises a broader issue of accessibility and equity in public transport. Without targeted investment and a strategic approach to sustaining and improving bus services in rural areas, the divide between urban and rural England will only continue to widen, leaving many communities disconnected and disadvantaged.

As the country approaches a General Election, the call for prioritising lifeline bus services has never been more urgent.

In Winning the Rural Vote, our asks of the political parties ahead of the general election, we ask for the development of an evidence-based Future of Rural Mobility Strategy that acknowledges that buses are essential infrastructure and places a duty on (and allocates funding to) Local Authorities to determine their local need for socially necessary rural buses.

Find out more about our campaign at this link: 
https://www.rsnonline.org.uk/winning-the-rural-vote

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