Threat to Devon bus services

The bus recovery grant, introduced last year to help operators cope with the drop-off in passenger numbers through the pandemic, is due to end in April. The govermnent is yet to announce whether more money will be forthcoming.

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk 

Last month the boss of Stagecoach South West said passenger numbers were still down by around 30 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. Some services have  been reduced therefore, and there are concerns more cuts will be needed without additional cash.

In a written question to a meeting of Devon County Council’s cabinet last week, councillor Rob Hannaford (Labour, Exwick & St Thomas), warned bus operators were facing a “funding cliff edge amid more cuts to vital routes.”

He asked transport cabinet member Andrea Davis (Conservative, Combe Martin Rural) what work is being done to assess the impact of bus service changes.

Her written response stated: “Officers from our transport coordination service are working with our local bus companies on the possible impacts of the emergency covid funding coming to an end and what this may mean for commercial and Devon County Council supported local bus services.

“With the recovery in passenger numbers having stalled due to the Omicron variant, without this funding, in the short-term services will be further reduced. This is likely to have a greater impact on areas with less frequent services.

“Taking this into account, I have written to the minister responsible for buses asking for urgent clarity on the funding.”

Cllr Davis also confirmed the council had yet to hear about a £34 million bid to the government for its ‘bus improvement plan,’ submitted at the end of October.

The county’s proposals, being developed in partnership with Devon’s bus companies, aim to make buses cheaper to use, greener, more frequent and more reliable.

Also included are plans for regional zone tickets to simplify fares, by working with neighbouring councils, and bringing in ‘young person’ tickets for 16 to 18 -year-olds – one of the age groups that rely on buses heavily.

Cllr Davis added: “To meet the ambitions of this plan we need a stable, attractive and affordable public transport network across the county to build on.”

It comes as transport bodies and the Local Government Association (LGA) called on central government to “urgently extend” the bus recovery grant from April, warning of a potential 30 per cent reduction in current bus services when support ends.

David Renard, transport spokesperson for the LGA, said: “Councils across the country are working with local operators to continue to deliver lifeline bus services despite the pressures of the pandemic. Greater usage of public transport helps to alleviate congestion and reduce harmful emissions in our communities.

“Government funding has helped keep buses on the road, allowing operators to close the gap between the costs of providing local public transport and the reduced revenues from much lower numbers of passengers than normal.

“Passenger numbers have not returned to those seen before the pandemic and without continued support, it is clear that some routes will no longer be viable and will have to be reduced.

“This will have a devastating impact on people who rely on these services to get to work, visit family and access vital services, including doctors and affordable food shopping.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The government has provided an unprecedented £1.7 billion in support to over 160 operators to keep services running during the pandemic, and we’re working closely with the sector to understand the potential challenges and mitigations once it ends in April.”