The Government's support for bus services in Wokingham Borough and beyond has been extended for three more months after the council campaigned to ministers on the issue.
The Department for Transport has agreed to invest another £155 million in its Bus Recovery Grant, Local Transport Fund and subsidised £2 cap on selected fares, so these are now available until 30 June to help operators recover from the impact of coronavirus.
The council welcomes this as its leader Cllr Clive Jones and executive member for active travel, transport and highways, Cllr Paul Fishwick, recently wrote a joint letter to transport secretary Mark Harper, arguing the original deadline of 31 March was too soon to withdraw this vital support.
It has already extended its own financial support for the borough's subsidised routes, which was also set to run out on 31 March, until 31 August so it can invite bids from operators to run these services in the long term, for a further three years.
Why more funding was needed
Although passenger numbers have increased since the height of the pandemic, they remain at about 80 per cent of pre-covid levels. At the same time, operators are facing spiralling costs like fuel, staffing and maintenance as well as a national shortage of drivers.
These have created an extremely tough environment, but the council is doing all it can to protect buses as it recognises their importance and strongly supports all types of active and sustainable travel. As well as reducing traffic congestion, public transport reduces harmful emissions so it improves air quality and, along with walking and cycling, helps the council honour its pledge to address the climate emergency.
It's a healthier and cheaper way of getting around and a lifeline for reaching school, work or social appointments, so it supports the local economy.
Keeping up the fight for survival
With Government funding now extended, the council is putting the borough’s subsidised routes out to tender for three years from September.
It's hoped that contracts will be awarded in May, with extra costs partly covered by payments that developers building new housing are required to make towards local services.
The council has also revised its Bus Service Improvement Plan, a strategic vision made up of various goals to attract more passengers by making services more reliable, accessible, clean and affordable.
No funding is allocated for any of these improvements but by writing and publishing the plan, the council hopes to attract funding to make them a reality in partnership with local operators.
Keeping the recovery rolling on
Cllr Fishwick said: “When it comes to our bus services, we've put our money where our mouth is - so we're delighted that the Government has followed suit by likewise extending its funding.
“It's still a tough time for services but we can't let them fall by the wayside. It will be far harder to try and revive routes if they’re allowed to fail than it is to support them through a difficult, but slowly improving, period.
“We'll keep fighting our corner and taking every reasonable step to keep the buses running, whether that comes from our own finances - though we must accept these are limited due to the many challenges we face - or applying for outside funding.
“Residents can do their part by taking the bus wherever they can. The closer that usage can get to pre-pandemic levels, and the quicker this happens, the more likely these vital community assets are to survive.”
Help us further by giving your views
The council is consulting until this Sunday (12 March) on its revised Local Transport Plan, which will set policies on all the different ways people get around the borough and will have active and sustainable travel at its heart.
To respond, click the blue button below. For help completing this, call the council on 0118 974 6000 or visit one of the borough's libraries.
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