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Government urged not to cut borough's bus funding lifeline

Government urged to save borough's bus funding lifeline

23 January 2023
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Photo of a Thames Valley Buses vehicle in motion

Bus services in Wokingham Borough need continued Government support if they are to survive their current financial challenges.


That's the message from Wokingham Borough Council, whose leader Cllr Clive Jones has urged transport secretary Mark Harper MP to meet him and consider extending central funding beyond 31 March.


The Department for Transport has extended its Bus Recovery Grant and contributions from its Local Transport Fund until then but, as it stands, nothing more is confirmed from April onwards.


If these are not renewed, the council cannot afford the hugely increased cost of subsidising local routes by itself and will be facing some tough decisions.


Our vision for a modern, reliable bus network


The council is doing all it can to help by revising its draft Bus Service Improvement Plan, a high-level strategy that sets goals for better provision over years to come. 

It started this in 2021 and has made the latest changes in line with the Department's advice, including a clearer emphasis on the role of working in partnership with bus companies and others.


The plan’s targets include a return to pre-pandemic passenger and service levels, faster and more reliable buses, improved passenger satisfaction, support for “greener” technologies and better links to other forms of transport - especially walking and cycling.


Other steps to be agreed with operators could include better access in rural areas, more attractive fares for young people and improving the fleets themselves.


The plan is purely a "vision" document, with no money yet available for these improvements, and will be put before the council's decision-making executive on Thursday (26 January). If approved, it will be used to support bids for Government funding and will be reviewed annually to ensure it meets its objectives.


Winning the battle but we can't fight alone


Since the global outbreak began in 2020, the Government has been providing recovery funding to keep services going despite reduced usage, with more people working or studying from home. Although passenger numbers on the borough's buses have since risen to 81 per cent of pre-covid levels, up from less than 75 per cent last year, they still need outside support to ensure their survival.


And while the Government has rolled out measures like the current £2 cap on single adult fares, which it is subsidising to encourage bus travel, this is also due to expire by April. This uncertainty comes as the industry faces rising costs, particularly vehicle maintenance, fuel prices, and difficulty recruiting drivers.


The council recently invited bids from operators to run its subsidised routes and found the cost of securing current service levels has increased by 58 per cent over the past two years. It had set aside £350,000 per year to cover any extra costs but would now need more than £1.2 million, a significant sum as it strives to balance its budget while protecting services for vulnerable residents.


Bringing communities together for work or play


Cllr Jones said: “We share the Government's vision for better, more frequent and more reliable bus services and recognise the vital role they play in strengthening communities, reducing social isolation, and growing the economy through improved access to jobs.


"We also appreciate the financial support offered for local bus services to date, creating a stable passenger base to grow from, and welcome the fare cap which our operators have fully embraced.


“However, we have significant concerns around the impact that withdrawing all funding and support will have on 31 March. This comes as we're facing serious, unprecedented financial challenges across all services, not just buses.”


Cllr Paul Fishwick, executive member for active travel, transport and highways, said: “We're still working closely with operators and other partners to address these challenges, in the spirit of our emerging Bus Service Improvement Plan, but we can only commit limited funding.


“As the Government's own Levelling-Up agenda makes clear, bus services provide a lifeline for vulnerable residents, a key link between businesses and are far healthier than driving - both for people and the environment.


“We're in a delicate position because we know cutting services will trigger a vicious cycle of decline and damage our borough's economy, but we just can't afford £1.2 million per year of extra subsidy. We need to make informed decisions and set our 2023/24 budget position as soon as possible, so we urge Mr Harper to take our concerns seriously.”


Cllr Fishwick has also renewed his calls for all residents to take the bus instead of driving where they can. He added: “It’s incredibly difficult to revive bus services once they are lost, and this would leave many communities and individuals at greater risk of isolation during a cost of living crisis.


“Our buses are not only affordable, reliable and accessible to those with disabilities, but offer a simple way of including some healthy steps into your daily routine. They also have far less impact on the environment than driving – so while tackling the climate emergency and improving our air quality may seem like a big task, this is one of many small steps we can all take.”

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