Funding for local bus services should be protected in the Spending Review due to be announced on Wednesday, according to Parliament’s cross-party green watchdog.
Tight budgets, reductions in bus services, increases in fares and a further concentration of public services are worsening transport accessibility for vulnerable groups within society, the MPs warn. Accessibility statistics show travel times to key services steadily increasing over time, particularly for access to hospitals — with nearly half of the population not having reasonable access.
Environmental Audit Committee Chair, Joan Walley MP, said:
"If the Chancellor cuts funding for bus services this week he will be making life harder for the young adults, pensioners, disabled and rural people that are already disadvantaged by the poor provision of affordable public transport in this country.
Growing numbers rely on public transport to get to job interviews or work, attend college or training, visit hospital or access other public services.
“The Government must concentrate on coordinating transport schemes and making sure fares are affordable to ensure everyone has access to economic opportunities and public services."
Concerns have been raised by 30 NGOs and representative groups that grants to local authorities and direct funding to bus operators will be cut as part of the Government’s deficit reduction plans. The 2010 Spending Review led to an estimated 70% of local authorities reducing funding for bus services, with one in five being cut.
The Committee urges the Department for Transport to focus more closely on improving accessibility as well as on supporting the economy. It recommends that existing transport funding should be better coordinated and directed to accessibility-focused initiatives, and the social value of transport explicitly considered in policy-making. A new cross-government working group of officials and Ministers should be charged with ensuring that this cross-cutting issue no longer falls between the gaps. The Government’s forthcoming Transport Strategy is an opportunity to set out how new arrangements will work.
The Committee was following up a 2003 Government report which found that problems with transport provision and the location of public services were reinforcing social exclusion by preventing people from accessing key local services and activities, such as jobs, learning, healthcare, food shopping or leisure.
Accessibility is defined as whether “people can get to key services at reasonable cost, in reasonable time and with reasonable ease” and is dependent on the answers to four questions:
- does transport exist between the people and the service?
- do people know about the transport, trust its reliability and feel safe using it?
- are people physically and financially able to access transport?
- are the services and activities within a reasonable distance?
The 2003 Social Exclusion Unit report, Making the Connections: Final Report on Social Exclusion and Transport, found the underlying causes of poor accessibility to be:
- Services having been developed with insufficient attention to accessibility. Accessibility had been seen as a problem for transport planners to solve, rather than one that concerned, and could be influenced by, other organisations.
- The growing complexity of people’s travel needs, to which public transport had not adapted. Rising car use, the centralisation of services and facilities over the previous 50 years, and increasing costs and declining provision of public transport had decreased accessibility.
- Fragmented public spending on transport. In 2003, £1 billion of public money was being spent each year on local authority supported bus services, and a further £900 million on school, patient and social services transport. These resources had not been sufficiently joined-up to improve accessibility.
- Insufficient weight given in transport project appraisal to the ‘social costs’ of poor transport provision. The distribution of transport funding had tended to benefit those on higher incomes. Spending had not been tied sufficiently to required outcomes, such as improved journey times, accessible vehicles, punctuality or customer satisfaction.
- Unfavourable perceptions about safety and security whilst travelling and the distances people were willing to travel.