The House of Commons transport select committee is investigating the state of the nation’s buses. The health of the bus market inquiry is looking at a number of technical issues and matters like congestion – which is barely relevant in Shropshire. But one of the themes of the inquiry caught my eye:
The committee is particularly interested to receive evidence on… the provision of services to isolated communities in rural and urban areas, and the reliance of particular communities and groups of people on bus services.
This is a theme dear to my heart. I have long argued that buses are not just part of the transport system. They are also a social service supporting the health and wellbeing of people and communities. I gathered technical evidence from Shropshire Council while preparing my submission but decided that I could best contribute by telling some personal stories. These are based on real experiences but I have changed details to anonymise and generalise – in other words, if you think it is referring to you it is not.
We have a battle ahead to keep Shropshire Council’s bus subsidies in future years. The budget is tight. Bus running costs are going up. The council’s budget is every more constrained by the rising costs of adult social care.
The trend in buses outside of London is one of decline. Council bus subsidies have been cut by nearly half since 2010/11 (46%). In Shropshire, the cut has been 37%. In Telford and Wrekin, it was 65%.
We must demand better quality buses and more frequent services. We deserve them. We need them.
There is a commonplace view that bus services cannot be afforded. That conflicts with every other area of public policy. We need to promote health and wellbeing. We need to ensure that as many people as possible can live independently in their own homes. We need to ensure people don’t become isolated. Buses are a vital social service. We should fund them properly.
We must also face up to the harsh choice on concessionary bus passes. As I say in my evidence, they are invaluable for health and wellbeing. But we spend more on concessionary passes than we do on subsidising bus routes. That means there are fewer bus routes than we could otherwise afford. And because there are fewer routes, the budget for concessionary passes is reduced. That’s a vicious circle if I ever saw and it creates a perverse incentive to cut back bus routes. We need to find another way of funding passes.
Evidence to House of Commons transport select committee on health of the bus market from Councillor Andy Boddington
I am one of the three Shropshire unitary councillors that represent the small market town of Ludlow in rural south Shropshire. I am also a bus user, preferring not to drive. This submission is informed by my role as a councillor and a rural bus user.
My evidence addresses the committee’s interest in “how bus services are provided to isolated rural and urban communities and their dependence on services.” I argue that buses are a social service that promotes wellbeing and should be funded on this basis, not just as a means of getting people from A to B.
I am sure I will be echoing evidence from around the country in noting the decline in rural bus services. In 2013/14, Shropshire Council subsidised 85 county bus routes. That has reduced to just 30 routes this year. This reduction has led to a focus on the most frequented routes at the expense of rural villages and services to other counties.
Clun with population approaching 700 people has only two bus services a week, both in the middle of the day. Ditton Priors is a similar size and has no bus services. This is leading to premature ageing of the populations in these settlements as young people leave our smallest towns and villages because they have no access to transport.
Buses are vital to the wellbeing of our rural communities. In a rural town like Ludlow, buses are a social service acting as a “community centre on wheels”. They provide access to shops and medical facilities, and to a lesser extent employment. They are an important part of the social fabric of our town of 11,000 people.
I can illustrate this with three local examples.
An elderly man with dementia is waiting for the bus at 9.10am. The bus driver gently quizzes him and sends him home for an hour because he usually gets the 10.10am service. If the dementia sufferer had caught the earlier bus, his essential routine of library, market, pint in pub and bus home at 12.00pm would have been in disarray.
A retired woman cares for her husband. She catches the bus to town in the morning to shop in the supermarkets six days a week. Often, she does the same in the afternoon. She doesn’t need to shop this frequently. The bus journey is an essential respite for her while carers are helping her husband. It is a chance to meet and talk to people in a life dominated by home duties.
A young disabled couple regularly travel by bus to a much bigger nearby town which has a greater range of shops. They usually don’t need to shop. They need to travel. It’s a scenic route and a refreshing break from four walls and the TV.
If people are isolated in their homes, if they can’t socialise, their wellbeing suffers. Buses make a significant contribution to wellbeing in our area. I have no doubt that the contribution to wellbeing exceeds the annual subsidy of £89,000 for services in Ludlow.
Buses achieve more than wellbeing. Ludlow has an important park and ride service. This only operates every half an hour and not on Sundays. But it does make a vital contribution to our town’s economy because we have a shortfall of car parking capacity in the historic centre of our town.
One of the main issues Shropshire Council faces is the cost of concessionary travel. On the current forecast, this will cost the council £3.1 million this year. I have no doubt that this is value for money for its contribution to wellbeing alone. But concessionary fares are having a perverse effect. Because the government will not defray the cost, it means that cash strapped councils are forced to reduce the number of routes that are subsidised. That undermines the effectiveness of rural buses in promoting wellbeing. It also adds costs to health and social budgets.
I would not wish to see an end to the concessionary fare policy. It has been a great achievement in getting people out of their homes, reducing isolation and improving wellbeing. But we need to look at how the policy is financed. We need to examine whether funding could come from public health budgets or from small payments from passengers as well as from councils. I know from my discussions with concessionary passengers on Ludlow town buses that most would pay a small amount towards the journey if that is the price of keeping services going.
Rather than reduce rural bus services, we need to extend them. Hospital services in the unitary authorities of Shropshire and Telford and Wrekin are about to be reorganised. The outcomes of the controversial Future Fit review are not yet known. But it seems inevitable that more health services will be concentrated in the main hospitals in Shrewsbury and Telford. Yet rural bus links to the hospitals are poor. We need to strengthen them.
Buses are a social service. In rural areas at least, bus provision should be part of the rural health remit as well as funded from declining transport budgets.
We can turn the decline in rural bus services around. This would take ambition and of course money. But it would not be vastly expensive in terms of the overall level of public spending and it would defray costs in the health and social care sectors.
Andy Boddington, Shropshire Councillor for Ludlow North. 24 September 2018
. I recently caught a Stagecoach service from Llandudno to Colwyn Bay. It has leather seats, wi-fi, charging points for laptops and phones, screen displaying the next stop. The only thing that seemed out of place in the 21st Century was the computer announcement of the next stop – it was in received BBC pronunciation and not the musical tones of the Welsh voice.