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County Buses: Recovering Services Post-Pandemic

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Yesterday, the County Councils Network (CCN) and SYSTRA, a leading engineering and consulting group, published a new report. In light of the growing pressures facing county bus networks, the CCN engaged SYSTRA in 2023 to undertake a comprehensive review of the English county bus services offer and the impact of recent policy developments.

The report

The report reveals that more than one in four bus routes in county and rural areas have vanished over the last decade with passenger numbers dropping to a ‘historic low’. The report concludes that many services in rural areas were already in state of ‘managed decline’ but the pandemic has accelerated this – with the Government’s much-vaunted National Bus Strategy doing little to address these issues as two-thirds of the £1.1bn to address the decline in buses went to urban areas. These areas benefited from hundreds of millions more in investment despite witnessing the smallest declines in passenger numbers in the lead up the pandemic, the report shows.

For the first time, the report reveals that the 37 largest county and rural authorities – representing almost half of England’s population – submitted Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) bids which collectively totalled £3.6bn, but these councils only received 10% – £363m – of the funding requested, with urban areas receiving £739m.

County areas: key findings

  • More than one in every four bus services has vanished in county areas over the last decade, as measured by vehicle miles. Between 2010-22, vehicle miles reduced by 26.5% in CCN areas, higher than London and metropolitan borough councils that cover cities and large towns. The pandemic has accelerated this, with vehicle miles dropping by 14.4% in 2021-22 compared to 2019.
  • This decline in bus availability has impacted on passenger numbers. Rural and county areas have witnessed the biggest percentage decline (-44%) with 344 million fewer journeys than a decade ago in 2022 compared to 2010. Passenger numbers were decimated during three national lockdowns in the pandemic year of 2020-21 and have not recovered fully. In 2021-22 passenger numbers in county areas were 35% down on 2019: 216.3m journeys. Compared to a high watermark of 2010, there were 344m fewer journeys taken in 2022 compared to 2010, with journeys now at a historic low.
  • When a route is deemed unviable from a commercial operator, as many rural routes are, local authorities step in and subsidise the service. However, with new analysis revealing councils in rural and county areas have a £420m (50.7%) shortfall in their local transport budgets, the number of council-supported miles in county areas has fallen dramatically by almost 60%; from 140 million miles a year in 2010 to 58 million miles in 2022. The report also shows that commercial operators have increasingly stopped services since the onset of the pandemic. The number of services, as measured in miles, has decreased by 15.6% since 2019, a drop of 51.2m miles.
  • Two years since the government launched its National Bus Strategy, promising a bus ‘revolution’, data in today’s report reveals that the areas with the smallest decline in passenger numbers outside of London received the most out of the £1.1bn BSIP funding. The urban metropolitan council areas that saw a 7.4% decline in passenger numbers to 2019 received £739m, which is 67% of the total funding. The county areas that received no funding from the first round of funding (but £40m in the second round) witnessed the biggest decline in passenger numbers: a drop of 16%.

Final thought

The report reveals the deep-rooted inequalities that exist between urban and rural areas. With the report highlighting that county areas – particularly those who missed out on the first round of BSIP funding – only received a fraction of what they need to deliver their ambitious bus service transformation plans, it recommends that the Government launches a further round of BSIP funding and allocates money on par with the level of ambition from councils. Moreover, as many councils are rightly concerned over the lack of clarity as to why some bids were successful and others were not, the report recommends that any future funding sets out clear criteria on how allocations are decided.

The report also calls for a ‘County Bus Strategy’ to address the specific issues in those places, as well as a direct revenue stream for buses, and the permanent introduction of £2 fares.

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