Buses under threat after Shropshire loses out on levelling up funding

Yesterday, Shropshire Council was awarded more than £19 million by the Department for Levelling Up to begin redevelopment of the riverfront on Smithfield Road in Shrewsbury town centre. It is good news that the council was successful in getting money for Shrewsbury but very bad news that the council lost out on funding for the rest of the county.

Top amongst the unsuccessful projects was a revitalisation of bus projects in Shropshire. This leaves many bus services across in danger of county ending at the end of March when post-pandemic subsidies end.

The operating costs of bus companies have increased significantly over the last year following the increase in fuel prices. Passenger numbers have also not recovered since the pandemic. We are in danger of losing many of our services.

Two routes under threat are the 435 service between Ludlow and Shrewsbury and the 553 Bishop’s Castle Shrewsbury service. Ludlow town services are not currently under threat.

Shropshire Council must now revise its budget for 2022/23 to ensure that the county’s buses have sufficient money to continue. If it does not, it will undermine the rural communities of Shropshire.

The process for allocating levelling up funds need to be revised. It pits councils against each other in a costly battle for the infrastructure needed for survival of their economies and communities. It is more like a bizarre reality show that a rational way of allocating money. Funding for local areas’ needs must be devolved to local areas.

The failed bids were for funding to regenerate and revitalise Craven Arms and Oswestry and to reinvigorate public transport across Shropshire. Although the council says it will continue to lobby the government and – where possible – seek alternative sources of funding, it sounds downbeat about getting more money. There is not much money around and there are more demands than there is money are decades of neglect of areas outside the major cities, including rural areas like Shropshire.

Shropshire Council says:

“For Craven Arms, a bid was made to deliver a major infrastructure project, including a new roundabout on the A49, a new road, and a road bridge over the railway line.

The Oswestry bid aimed to regenerate the town through a package of projects.

And the public transport bid sought funding for a new on-demand bus service, and a reimagined Shrewsbury Park and Ride service.”

Putting aside that the council list bus services last in the list of bids, the bid was excessive. It was not a cohesive package. A town centre here, a town centre there. A road improvement and, by the way, better bus services.

The bid, at £104 million, was excessive and could never have succeeded in full. But this is typical of Shropshire Council. It can’t agree its priorities for the county, except Shrewsbury always comes first, Oswestry second, the rest of the county third.

Buses are always running late in the council leader’s thinking.

There will be another round of levelling up funding. For the future of our rural communities in Shropshire, this should focus on buses.

With enough investment in buses, services can thrive. People can get access to the services they need. They can get to medical services. To shops. To friends. To work. To education.

That will improve their lives and their health.

Supporting buses makes sense. It is time that Shropshire Council recognised that and made buses its Number One priority for funding.