The funding gap for the concessionary bus fare scheme in England, which provides free off-peak bus travel for older and disabled people, has grown to an estimated £652 million, new analysis for the Local Government Association reveals.
Councils are warning that, unless Government addresses this widening gap in the Spending Review, vulnerable residents could be left isolated and unsupported, particularly those in rural areas. Communities could also see increased congestion and poorer air quality.
Uncontrollable costs and reductions in government funding means the money available for concessionary fares, the national ‘free bus pass’ scheme, was underfunded by an estimated £652 million in 2017/18, LGA analysis shows. This is significantly more than the LGA’s previous estimate of at least £200 million made in 2016 and is forecast to increase further in 2019/20.
The National Concessionary Travel Scheme is a statutory duty administered by councils, which are having to increasingly fill the gap between the cost and government funding for the scheme with their own limited resources.
To try and do this, councils have been forced to reduce spending on discretionary concessionary fares across England, from £115 million in 2014/15 to £85 million in 2017/18 – a fall of 26 per cent.
This is less money being spent on providing supported rural bus services, discretionary subsidised bus services, such as free peak travel, post-16 school transport, companion-free travel, or assistance for young person’s travel.
Nearly half of all bus routes in England currently receive partial or complete subsidies from councils and are under threat.
The LGA is warning that the underfunding of subsidised bus routes, coupled with councils facing an overall funding gap of £3.1 billion in 2019/20, means that local authorities will struggle to maintain current subsidies for bus routes which will continue to fall unless they are given the funding to protect them.
The LGA said the future of bus services is of huge concern and would be made more secure if the Government reinstated the full funding of the costs of the national concessionary travel scheme in its forthcoming Spending Review.
Cllr Adele Morris, LGA Lib Dem Group Transport spokesman, said:
“Councils are being increasingly forced to subsidise the national free bus pass scheme, creating an estimated funding gap of £652 million a year. This is unsustainable when councils are already struggling to protect other subsidised bus travel.
“Bus services are vital for our communities and are a lifeline, giving our poorest and most vulnerable residents access to healthcare, shopping and socialising.
“The Government needs to properly fund the national free bus pass scheme if it wants councils to be able to maintain our essential bus services and reduce congestion.
“If this is not addressed in the Spending Review it could lead to older people having a free bus pass but no bus to travel on.”
Liberal Democrat Transport Spokesperson Baroness Jenny Randerson added:
“Without the national free bus pass scheme too many vulnerable people could be left isolated, particularly in rural areas. It is therefore desperately concerning that cuts from this Conservative Government is crippling the ability of Councils to fund this scheme.
“People deserve better, and the Liberal Democrats demand better. Liberal Democrats would create a nationwide bus plan and introduce a Government funded discount card for Young People, encouraging a modal shift towards public transport use. We would also properly fund councils so they can choose how they run their own services, allowing them to close this funding gap the Tories have created.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
- Since 2013/14 there were more than 297 million fewer bus journeys across the country in 2017/18 – a decrease of 6.4 per cent
- Since 2010/11 more than 3,000 supported bus services have been reduced, altered or withdrawn
- Buses in crisis, Campaign for Better Transport 2018
- Analysis of the funding gap for the concessionary bus fare scheme was undertaken for the LGA by Paul Woods, Interim Chief Finance Officer at North East Combined Authority