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It comes as no surprise that amid funding cuts, congestion and a rise in car ownership that there has been a decline of bus use across the country.
In 2016, Telford & Wrekin was named as one of the areas in England with the highest drop in percentage in bus use in two years.
With lack of rural routes and commercial routes generally focusing on urban areas, people rely on cars to get to their place of work or school. In Shropshire, approximately one-third of the population lives in “sparse rural” areas and car ownership levels are higher than the national average.
The percentage of people over 65 and 85 years of age are higher than both the regional and national average. Over one-fifth of the population qualify for concessionary bus travel through age or disability.
Yet there are concerns that a lack of routes and services in these rural areas will lead to social exclusion for vulnerable groups who rely on bus use such as elderly, disabled, job seekers and those on low incomes.
This concern has been addressed in the Shropshire Bus Strategy 2017-2021 stating: “Whilst the percentage of households with no access to private vehicles is low, it is clear that this proportion of the population are reliant on local transport services, and a lack of services will increase social exclusion, especially in rural areas and particularly for the elderly, disabled, young and those on low incomes.
“Shropshire as a rural County needs a public transport network that makes appropriate use of fixed route services buses in and between key local settlements whilst utilising the more responsive, and dynamic local community transport and community car scheme networks elsewhere in the county.”
Concern over Service Withdrawal
Between 2015/2016 and 2016/2017, Shropshire council saw an 18 percent cut in the budget for bus services – a total of £338,200, figures from Better Transport revealed. It also found that Telford & Wrekin Council had a 17 percent cut, £57,260, which saw the withdrawal of two bus services in the area.
It is understood that the infrequent services may be withdrawn over the year.
Harold Bound of campaign group Bus User Shropshire told JT Hughes: “Early morning and evening services on a number of routes have been withdrawn, and this obviously makes it more difficult for people to use services to travel to and from work.”
“Some services have had a reduced frequency. Service 53 between Oswestry and Ellesmere is being reduced from every 40 minutes to hourly at the end of this month.”
The group has also expressed concern at the lack of bus services in Hinstock.
Lack of Public Transport Isolating Rural Communities
Across the country, local authorities are reducing support for rural bus networks. Campaign for Better Transport has been calling on the government to take immediate action to improve public transport in rural areas.
The Bus Services Act 2017 gives local authorities greater say over how to run buses in their area. However, the charity has concerns that while the act will be of benefits to towns and cities, it will provide little help to rural areas which have been hit by funding cuts.
Stephen Joseph, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport said: “Public transport cuts can have a devastating impact on rural areas. If you don't have access to a car, the chances are you're reliant on buses to get you to school, to hospital, to friends or to the shops.
“If that bus service disappears it can leave whole villages completely isolated. The Government must use the Bus Services Bill to give rural local authorities the powers and funding to stop communities getting cut off."
According to the 2016-2021 Shropshire Bus Strategy, the cost of the subsidised network was around £1.8 million per annum.
The 2017 strategy states an intention to assess all routes that currently require a subsidy from Shropshire Council funds, by analysing the benefits and costs of different and disparate routes across the county.
This includes looking at local transport plan priorities such as enabling disadvantaged groups to access employment sites and key services. The framework will also take accessibility, financial and value for money into consideration.
School Transport Crisis
School transport is an important component of the bus industry and provides a vital service to young people who need to access education and training.
However, there is a picture emerging that school transport will not be immune to budget cuts hitting the council.
With Shropshire Council announcing plans to tackle a predicted shortfall of £59.3 million by 2022/2023, the home to school transport budget may end up taking a £556,000 hit in 2018/19.
There is also a proposed £405,000 cut to bus subsidies for 2019/2020, which is also pending approval.
If proposed cuts were to go ahead, it could have a negative impact on young people accessing education, as highlighted in the School Transport Matters report published in 2016 by Campaign for Better Transport.
The survey was compiled using figures taken from a number of local authorities, including Shropshire Council.
Overall it showed that spending cuts had led to almost three quarters, 72 percent, of local education authorities making cuts to school transport. Furthermore, it found that cuts to school transport result in 100million extra car journeys a year.
Figures showed that since 2008, outside of London more than 350,000 young people have so far lost their bus transport. This is mainly those attending faith schools, but also pupils with special needs, post-16 students, or those previously receiving transport because of the nature of the route or due to exceptional circumstance.
The Association of Colleges reported that one in five of post-16 students are considering dropping out due to transport problems.
The Local Government Association estimated that underachievement/drop out by this age group already costs the exchequer £814million a year, according to 2012 figures.
Lianna Etkind, public transport campaigner at Campaign for Better Transport, said: “School buses are essential to reducing congestion and improving air quality, as well as ensuring young people are able to access their choice of school or college.
“What these figures reveal is a real divide opening up between urban and more rural areas, with children in rural areas having fewer and fewer public transport options. For many parents the choice between working and taking their children to school is becoming a real issue. If the Government is serious about reducing traffic jams and air pollution, it should start with supporting decent school transport.”
Calls for Improvements
Harold added that Bus User Shropshire is calling for better information about services at bus stops.
“One of our concerns is the lack of up to date information about services at bus stops, and we have made representations to the Council and operators for timetable cases to have up-to-date timetables. We have published and circulated a rural bus services route network map to replace the map previously published by the Council. Only a small number of these are still available, and we are hoping to publish a new edition this year.”
“We are keen to see if improved marketing and publicity can make rural services viable, and are looking into the possibility of conducting a trial this year.”
“We only have a small number of members, and there is a limit to what we can achieve, but when time is available, we seek to monitor the reliability of existing bus services, as unreliability of services is one of the factors which discourages the use of public transport.”
“I am concerned that there is too much emphasis on the costs of providing public transport, and insufficient recognition of the benefits it can have in reducing traffic congestion, supporting businesses in our towns, and reducing loneliness and isolation, which is a matter of increasing concern.”
Community Schemes Offering Help
Even though the future of buses in Shropshire and around the country seems bleak, there are community schemes offering assistance to those who simply want to get to work but are unable to due to poor transport links.
Edward Thornton, 32, from Whitchurch used to get a lift to work with a colleague, but when that person resigned and poor rural transport links, Edward faced losing his job. He contacted Wheels2Work who supplied him with a motorbike and helped him through his provisional test and on the road within a month.
Wheels2Work scheme started in 1997 and supports people in Shropshire, Telford & Wrekin who need help with transport to be able to get to work because there are no other transport options.
The scheme helps around 200 people each year by offering transport options and advice as well as loaning scooters or electric bikes or supporting individuals with the costs of getting to and from work.
Lindsey Stirton, project officer at Wheels2Work said: “Clients who apply to Wheels2Work all have transport issues with getting to their place of work on time for all their shifts; either through lack of public transport that fits in with their work pattern, or the cost of taxis to their place of work.”
“Most clients who live rurally are generally getting lifts from others whenever possible.”
“A lot of clients apply to Wheels2Work because they have been offered a job and can’t take it up because they can’t get there.”
For more information about Wheels2Work and to find out whether you can apply for help.