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'Impossible struggle' to keep council bus subsidies

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Councils face “an impossible struggle” to maintain support for socially necessary services bus services, with subsidies having fallen by almost a third since 2010-11, despite operators having reduced contract prices for the tenth year running.

Those findings come from the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers’ (ATCO) annual survey of councils’ bus subsidies outside London.

It said pressure on budgets from other services had seen councils’ support fall from £6.74 per passenger in 2010-11 to only £4.61 in 2017-18, even though operators had reduced their contract prices by an average of 2.64%.

The 2018-19 budgets would need to increase by 2.3% simply to maintain levels of public transport already considered inadequate by many communities, ATCO said.

ATCO said the money available from local authority transport budgets reduced, with 27% of authorities cutting support last year.

Outside London’s regulated system, operators can run routes as they choose, with councils able to subsidise those judged socially necessary but not commercially viable.

Loss of subsidised services was a factor behind the decline in local bus use reported in the Department of Transport’s statistics, ATCO said, as increasingly only larger urban areas and inter-urban routes - where most services operate unsubsidised – had buses that ran in sufficient numbers to allow reasonable levels of mobility.

The survey noted: “In many rural areas and residential suburbs not lying on the core commercial networks local bus services are an endangered species.”

John Carr, chair of ATCO’s Performance Group, said: “The results…highlight the almost impossible struggle that councils face to keep passenger transport services for those that most need them”.

The survey also found that local authorities estimate on average that they need to increase their budgets by 3.2% for school transport, and 2.6% for special educational needs transport, in 2019-20 to retain existing service levels.

Some 32% of all English bus journeys outside London were made by holders of concessionary passes, for which councils reimbursed operators by £1.13 per average journey.

The North East Combined Authority last week told parliament that councils subsidised concessionary travel for pensioners by £652m in 2017-18


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