Fund England’s bus network now or lose vital routes, campaigners warn

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Bus services will not survive without sustained Treasury funding, campaigners and industry groups have warned the chancellor after the cutting of hundreds of routes in recent months.

Transport charities and trade bodies have written to Jeremy Hunt asking for support before this week’s autumn statement urging him to guarantee short-term funding, give targeted help to local authorities, and bring in better long-term financial settlements.

Bus services have been struggling with lower demand since the Covid pandemic, severe driver shortages and rising fuel costs. In a letter to the chancellor before the tax and spending announcement, the Campaign for Better Transport and the Confederation of Passenger Transport trade body warned that failure to take action could lead to the loss of crucial public transport networks.

The letter to Hunt, who is expected to make up to £35bn of spending cuts in his autumn statement, said: “Balancing the books is in the public interest, but this cannot be at the expense of our public transport network.

“Local authority budgets are also under severe strain, and many cannot afford to support services. This has resulted in hundreds of bus routes being cut or reduced over the last few months. We cannot afford to see this continue.”

While the government had promised a £3bn investment in buses after unveiling a long-awaited national strategy, much of the funding was swallowed by emergency pandemic grants. About £1.2bn was earmarked for bus service improvement plans, but a controversial and expensive bidding process left only a minority of local authorities receiving any money, and on average less than 25% of the amount requested to fund promised upgrades.

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Paul Tuohy of the Campaign for Better Transport said: “Buses are at the heart of our economy. They are the nation’s most-used form of public transport and an essential service, with millions of people relying on buses for accessing education, employment, healthcare and high streets.

“Whilst government support for local buses since the start of the pandemic has been welcome, the shape of future funding for buses will be crucial for the survival of our local bus network.”

The letter comes after a critical House of Lords report warned bus services could be cut by up to 20% next year, and called for an end to “costly and inefficient” bidding for grants in favour of stable periodic funding. The cross-party Lords built environment committee said the end of pandemic funding “risk[ed] a downward spiral of reducing demand”.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We are committed to improving bus fares, services and infrastructure, and have already given nearly £2bn since March 2020 to operators and local authorities to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic.

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“We recently announced a further £130m to protect services and maintain existing routes, and are working with partners to ensure services remain commercially sustainable by reflecting the long-term needs of passengers.”

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