Bishop of St Albans supports improved public transport for rural communities

The Bishop of St Albans spoke in a debate on transport network investment on 30th March 2023, emphasising the need for better public transport routes in rural communities, particularly relating to funding for bus routes:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for securing this debate. It is a vital area for us. Those of us who live in the south-east of England are aware of the huge strains that are being put on ordinary people’s lives day by day, and on our businesses, through the problems with our transport system, not least with public transport.

I am also aware that this matter touches so many other areas of concern at the moment, such as our desire to work for a net-zero carbon future and the question of how we can get people off the roads as much as possible and on to good, fast, efficient public transport. I am aware that this means having a long-term policy on active transport; we need to work out how to get a sea change in what we expect and what we can offer. I was therefore pleased to hear the announcement by His Majesty’s Government of the provision of additional funding for transport in the recently published Statement. However, as has already been pointed out, it raises an awful lot of questions, not just about what was in it but what was not in it.

I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition. I want to focus my comments mainly on the rural dimension of public transport policy. Nearly 10 million of this country’s 67 million people live in rural areas—one in six of us. Sadly, there was little in the Government’s announcement to bring cheer to rural inhabitants. I and others who care about rurality and the long-term sustainability of the countryside entirely accept that we cannot expect anything like the levels of public transport and roads that our urban colleagues take for granted.

However, it is deeply disappointing that the recent Statement made no specific mention of buses and bus routes, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, pointed out. In my diocese of St Albans—which is, compared with many shire counties, not that rural; by and large, we have large villages and are pretty much a commuter county—buses provide a vital lifeline to rural communities, especially for those on low incomes, pensioners and those with disabilities who cannot drive themselves or afford disabled-friendly vehicles. Therefore, such people are almost entirely reliant on rural bus routes to carry out their daily activities. According to Age UK, one in three older households in rural areas have no access to a vehicle, leaving them entirely reliant on bus routes or expensive taxis—if they can get a taxi. We moan in our urban areas that it is sometimes difficult to get a taxi; it is much worse in rural areas where, sometimes, there simply is no taxi available.

These bus routes continue to be relied on by our rural communities, with statistics showing that over a quarter of bus passenger journeys in England outside London are made in rural areas. It is therefore very concerning to see the steady reduction in rural bus services. Since 2017, there has been a 56.5% reduction in bus mileage in Hertfordshire, and many of our “lifeline” routes such as the 84 service between Potters Bar and New Barnet have been phased out and only partially replaced.

Funding for rural transport has long been an issue. Most rural bus routes are not commercially viable if it is simply left to the market. They tend to be used by fewer people and to involve much longer journeys. They are not sustainable without local government support. Further, as noted by the Government’s Statement, the pandemic has, certainly in the short and medium term, reduced the number of passengers hugely. The problem with cutting bus services is that the chance of rebuilding them as we try to emerge into whatever new society we are to have will be difficult; it is more or less being forced on people.

I am grateful that His Majesty’s Government have been funding the £2 cap on bus fares in England; I note that this was extended for a further three months recently, and for that we are grateful. However, as transport economists have been quick to point out, if and when the subsidies come to an end or are removed, it is likely that hundreds of rural bus services will be cut.

One of the major concerns for rural areas is the Government’s Bus Back Better strategy, which requires that local authorities develop a local bus service improvement plan and apply for funding. Of the 79 local authorities that submitted those improvement plans in 2021-22, only 31 are set to receive central government funding to deliver their plans. The Campaign for Better Transport has highlighted that this strategy leaves out rural authorities, which have often much smaller transport teams and advisers and simply lack the resources and expertise to successfully apply for and win government funding. That is an extraordinary irony, whereby the communities most in need of government support do not have the capacity or the skills to apply for it, with some notable exceptions.

Good public transport networks are vital to all communities. As we are trying to work out a long-term strategy for sustainable rural communities, we need those networks to allow people to connect to their workplaces, families, local shops, doctors’ surgeries and so on. A report by KPMG estimated that for every £1 invested into local communities for bus networks, you could expect to see an economic return of £4.48. Therefore, I conclude by asking the Minister: what steps will His Majesty’s Government take to ensure that rural authorities are not left out of the local bus improvement plan funding in future?


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