County signs up to bus campaign
DEVON County Council is backing a national campaign calling for a fair funding settlement for the concessionary bus scheme.
With the issue of rural buses being debated by MPs at Westminster Hall this week, the Fair Fares campaign has been launched by Norfolk County Council, which is facing a �4.5 million shortfall in funding for the concessionary bus scheme.
The campaign’s online petition states that while all councils support the principles of allowing eligible older and disabled people to travel free on buses, it is resulting in cuts to other public transport. The petition can be accessed at: www.gopetition.com/petitions/fair-funding-for-concessionary-fares.html
Devon County Council, which has been left with a �5 million shortfall from the scheme, is also urging central Government to look again at the proposal to reduce grants to bus operators next year. The warning from councillors is that rural bus services could be put at further risk by proposed Government spending reductions in the next financial year.
Councillor Stuart Hughes, Devon County Council cabinet member for highways and transportation, said: “We’re lending our full backing to this campaign and we’re pleased that MPs are debating this issue. We have faced additional pressure on all of our services since responsibility for the free national bus pass fell to the county council in April. While Devon is fully supportive of the concessionary bus scheme, Government funding left us with a massive shortfall, forcing additional pressure on all services supported by the county council.
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“Rural authorities like Devon and Norfolk are suffering the most, but councils right across the country are facing the same difficulties in funding this scheme. During last year’s cuts to public transport, every effort was made by Devon to minimise the effect on the travelling public.
“Our approach has been to end subsidy to school services for pupils not entitled to transport and to ensure that the last remaining service is not removed from communities. Any further Government cuts would be more problematic and would have a much bigger impact on bus services.”
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Devon County Council welcomed the House of Commons Transport Committee report earlier this year, which identified the direct impact of the Government Spending Review on local authorities’ funding for public transport. However, it fears the recommendations may not go far enough to prevent further cuts to public transport services, particularly in rural areas.
In its evidence to the committee, DCC pointed out that the Government’s Spending Review has reduced its budget by �54 million in the current year, and as reductions had to largely fall across non-statutory services, it had to reduce expenditure on support for bus services by �1.35 million.
Devon County Council Leader John Hart said: “We have very real concerns about the direct effect of the Government Spending Review on local authorities’ funding for public transport. People who rely on buses are often those in most need, and the Government must continue to provide support to ensure that rural bus services can be maintained. Central Government appears to have distanced itself from the reasons for cuts to bus services, but it’s wrong for it to lay blame at the door of local councils.
“Admittedly the Government has had a difficult task in tackling the unprecedented national deficit, but Devon County Council has already reviewed its bus services throughout the county and made savings of �1.35 million. Any further cuts will dramatically affect the services we can offer our rural communities in Devon.”
Devon is concerned that the Government’s proposed 20% reduction in Bus Service Operators Grant from April 2012 will increase bus operating costs by 1.5% – 2%, which will add to existing pressures on the costs of both commercial and supported bus services, and is likely to result in a further reduction of bus services. If passed on as a fare increase, fares would have to rise by perhaps 5% to compensate, but fares in Devon are already seen to be among the highest in the country, and further increases would make the situation worse.