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Survey finds peril for bus subsidies

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Financial support for bus routes is set to fall in more than half of English councils, a transport officers’ survey has found.

Bus services face trouble on three fronts – from cash-strapped councils cutting subsidies, reform of the concessionary fares scheme and Government reductions to bus service operator grants from next year.

Buses were deregulated outside London in 1985 and councils can subsidise routes they judge socially necessary but are not commercially viable.

The cuts threaten to cause social exclsuion as residents of isolated areas are marooned by a lack of buses, the Association of Transport Coordinating Officers said.

It had a 55% response rate to its survey of upper tier councils and metropolitan passenger transport executives.

This showed that 65% of county councils will cut their spending on buses by up to 25% in 2011-12, a further 30% would cut by up to half and 5% by more than half.

Among unitary councils cuts would fall roughly evenly between the below 25%, 26-49% and above 50% bands. No PTE planned a cut in excess of 25%.

Both county and unitary councils planned deeper cuts in spending on buses in 2012-13, though PTEs did not.

The most extreme cuts are at Cambridgeshire CC and Hartlepool BC, which will remove all their bus subsidies, a decision that led to disturbances at the former’s budget meeting.

ATCO chair Bruce Thompson said the removal of ring fences from specific grants, such as rural bus subsidy, had put councils’ discretionary spending on public transport at higher risk

“This is not only a rural problem but it hits rural authorities particularly hard because there if the supported bus goes there is often no other,” Mr Thompson said.

“It is a major issue of social exclusion. If there is no bus people cannot get work or use services, which has equalities implications. You find people cannot get out of a village if they have no car.”

Jonathan Bray, director of the Passenger Transport Executive Group said the problem would be less severe in metropolitan areas, where only some 15% of bus networks typically operated with council subsidies.

“The bus is still a player in urban areas but we could see cuts to evening and Sunday services,” he said.

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