14 Aug 2011

Exclusive: 90 per cent of councils slashing bus subsidies

Home Affairs Correspondent

Most English local authorities are cutting subsidies to unprofitable bus routes in a move that threatens to leave pensioners out in the cold, Channel 4 News learns.

As many as 90 per cent of local authorities in England are cutting subsidies to bus services, Channel 4 News has learned. The move threatens to leave vulnerable people like the elderly and unemployed

More than 90 per cent of local authorities in England are cutting subsidies to bus services, Channel 4 News has learned.

The move threatens to leave vulnerable people like the elderly and unemployed unable to access public transport, MPs have warned.

This week the Commons cross-party Transport Committee published a report warning that cuts to bus services nationally are threatening the most vulnerable.

Chairman Louise Ellman said: “Following the Government’s Spending Review, we have seen a significant number of bus services withdrawn around the country and there is every indication that fares are set to rise well above the rate of inflation in some areas.”

The select committee estimated that more than 70 per cent of councils “have moved rapidly to reduce funding for supported bus services” as they attempt to cut costs following cuts in funding from Whitehall.

Read more - FactCheck: Manchester - front line in the cuts blame game

But research by Channel 4 News suggests that more than nine out of ten local authorities are slashing subsidies, forcing most operators to withdraw services or push up fares as the English bus industry adjusts to the greatest financial challenge it has faced for a generation.

Hartlepool Borough council has cut its entire budget for bus subsidies, meaning unprofitable routes have been axed. The Council told Channel 4 News they had to make savings after the Coalition reduced their grant by 19 per cent.

It’s like a forgotten world. It makes you feel so depressed. Norma Morish

Local pensioner Norma Morish said: “It’s like a forgotten world. It makes you feel so depressed. If you could get on a bus – we’ve got bus passes – that’s brilliant – I feel like framing mine.

“But no buses to use them on. We’re on an estate surrounded by main roads. The whole of life is out there but we can’t access it.”

Bob Williams, who works at a Hartlepool steelworks, said: “I live six miles from the works and it takes me an hour and twenty minutes to walk it. So you’ve just finished your shift, you have to walk an hour and 20 minutes to get home? Yes it would be. An hour and twenty minutes.

“There used to be a service that came in to the works but when the subsidy was cut they actual service was cut.”

Most bus services in Hartlepool are run by Stagecoach, Britain’s most profitable bus operator. Last year they made more than £153m profit, running services like these.

Both the council and Hartlepool’s MP Iain Wright think Stagecoach should use their profits to subsidise less viable services.

Mr Wright said: “I think its important if they can run the profitable routes they should also have a sense of social responsibility and run those socially essential possibly economically vital to the town bus routes, that may not make a profit.

“Why should any bus operator keep running these routes if they are not making a profit? I don’t think Stagecoach shouldn’t be making a profit, but they are making – as they boast – sector-leading profits. They should be putting something back.”

A spokesman for Stagecoach told Channel 4 News: “In many parts of the country we do support marginal services from the more profitable routes. However, we face the same economic challenges as any other organisation, particularly in the current climate.

“We are unable to support every unprofitable service in the same way local and central government is unable to fund all services we would like to see in our local communities.”

Channel 4 News Midlands Correspondent Darshna Soni writes:

516 used to be pensioner Tom Bunce’s lucky numbers. It was the bus that he took almost every day. But now his only option is to walk. And it’s three quarters of a mile to the nearest shop – a return journey that takes him more than an hour. He has to do it three times a week, rain or shine, to buy his food.

He said: “Sometimes you are caught when the weather is bad and I just get wet or cold or whatever. There is basically no option because I can’t afford taxis. And that is quite serious when you can’t afford taxis. But when it is £2.60 for a mile journey, you can’t afford taxis and I don’t think very many people can.”

The 516 never made a profit – it was run by a local bus firm and subsidised by the council. But as a result of government cuts, the subsidy stopped. And so did the bus. Burbank has a high proportion of elderly residents. Like Mr Bunce, many now feel completely isolated.

“It was more than a bus service. It was a lifeline. But that’s been completely cut off now. It’s been ruddy murder to tell you the truth.”

Mr Bunce was just one of the many people I met when researching this story whose lives have been left devestated by something as seemingly simple as the loss of their local bus service. When you don’t have a car and can’t afford taxis, it can have serious consequences.