Are the wheels coming off our bus service?

This is a copy of my article about rural bus funding wirtten for the ePolitix website and published ahead of my debate in the House of Commons today.

The wheels on the bus will fall off over the next few years if the government fails to reform transport funding and the Concessionary Fares Scheme.

If it does, it will be those in the shire-counties, particularly the rural areas, which will suffer the most.

The bus network creaks along, patched up with a complicated array of funding formulae and transport subsidy. Instead of giving the service a complete overhaul, when it had the opportunity, the last Labour government opened the doors and welcomed more on board with the promise of a free bus pass.

They forgot to tell these eager new passengers that the system was unfunded in the long-term. Now our buses hurtle towards the deficit-reduction pothole left behind by Labour, threatening to put many of our buses off the road permanently.

My Westminster Hall debate focussing on the funding for rural bus services is an opportunity to highlight the challenges facing our shire-counties in providing a functioning and extensive network, whilst maintaining the statutory concessionary fares scheme.

I want to start a serious discussion on how we fund these services in the future and how the system needs reform to create a viable network. Opponents claim this is an excuse to scrap the cherished free bus pass for pensioners.

Far from it, I see not only the liberating effect this has on so many but understand how vital it is for the poorest and most vulnerable pensioners.

Yet the cost of providing this social benefit is set to rise, just as funding is squeezed. Transport authorities, like Norfolk County Council, will be forced to axe subsidised services, mostly in rural areas, in order to continue providing free travel. A free pass becomes a worthless pass if there are no buses left to use it on.

Although I will use the debate to lobby ministers for a fairer funding deal for Norfolk and other shire-counties, that is not the only answer to this problem.

We should explore other policy options. Some may seem politically unpalatable, such as restricting the use of free passes or introducing a fee for their issue or a low flat-rate fare.

Yet, having aired those possibilities during a recent radio interview, I was heartened by the measured response of so many pensioners. Overwhelmingly, the responses included comments such as – Yes! I would pay £10 to get my pass or I could pay 50p for every journey I made.

Other policy options include extending the 5-year life of passes to avoid unnecessary administrative costs of reissue. Norfolk County Council will spend £0.25m reissuing passes in 2013, money better spent on maintaining rural routes.

Amending legislation to permit the use of travel passes on community transport services, including dial-a-ride and low-cost shared taxi services will encourage a more innovative approach to rural transport.

We persist in subsidising inconvenient and infrequent bus services that run almost empty of passengers when there are better, more practical alternatives. It is ridiculous that pensioners are prevented from using their pass on a more convenient service, that is responsive to passenger demands, such as a community bus scheme.

We can’t ignore the deficit pothole but we can make sure our rural transport network is roadworthy enough to bounce over it.