The billions the Government has pledged for bus services must be ‘open to all areas and it is distributed fairly’, the shire counties have said, as urban and rural areas could be set for a showdown over the cash.
Cllr David Williams, chairman of the County Councils Network, said: ‘Councils in shire counties have seen their funding halve for local bus services since 2010, compared to a 19% drop for the major cities. As a result, buses are almost non-existent in some of the most rural and coastal areas where services are a lifeline, while county towns suffer from less frequent and more expensive services compared cities.
‘Therefore, is imperative that access to this funding is open to all areas and it is distributed fairly.’
Cllr Williams added that the National Bus Strategy, which is set to be published later this year and will add more details to the announcement, ‘should ensure that funding is provided directly to county and unitary authorities in England’.
He also suggested that ‘all transport authorities given the powers, freedoms and flexibility to overhaul and improve local services, and replace lost routes’.
The calls follow research by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) based on which they coined the term ‘transport desert’ - communities who lack public transport options for residents to be able to travel conveniently on a day-to-day basis without needing to drive.
‘Our research findings are clear: a majority of small towns across two major regions in England are now showing signs of becoming a transport desert.’
‘More than half of small towns in the south west and north east of England are already transport deserts, or are at serious risk of becoming one,’ it states.
‘After 80% cuts to spending on bus services, nine out of the 13 small towns in Dorset have become transport deserts or are at risk of being absorbed into one,’ while in County Durham the report found that ‘just six of the 22 small towns covered by the research have a remaining train station’.
Following the Bus Services Act, transport authorities have looked at the potential to return London-style franchising powers to their areas.
However the process can be difficult and costly and is easiest for major cities with elected mayors, who if supported with government investment could use such powers to realise the government’s ambitions of simpler fares and more frequent services.
The bus industry has suggested the cash should be focused on more profitable urban routes that suffer congestion – a major hurdle to increasing passenger numbers.
Confederation of Passenger Transport chief executive Graham Vidler said: ‘It is vital that this funding is used to make sustainable, long-term improvements to bus services. We'll be working with Government to ensure investment is focused on tackling congestion and supporting the bus industry's bold plans to transition to zero emission vehicles.’
The CPT is the trade body for bus and coach operators across the UK and represents 95% of the UK bus market.
Cllr David Renard, the Local Government Association’s transport spokesman, said: ‘It is essential that councils can use this new funding to protect services and reverse the reductions in local bus routes forced on local authorities from the £700m annual funding gap councils face in providing the concessionary fares scheme.
‘We would now like to see the Government use the forthcoming Budget to give councils control over the Bus Service Operators’ Grant, a fuel duty rebate currently paid directly to bus operators, which would enable councils to protect bus routes, and give them the funding they need to provide an effective and efficient bus service.’