Spending time in some gloriously isolated corner of our countryside can be a life-enhancing experience. But that isolation is far from wonderful if you live amid it permanently and can’t escape, if you are trapped because you don’t have a car and the buses have been axed.
For many thousands of people, that scenario recently became a reality as cash-strapped local authorities across England slashed around £34m from their subsidies to hundreds of local bus services. Other rural areas of the UK are also being affected, but England is worst-off and the action group Campaign for Better Transport says it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who are hardest hit.
In the past couple of months, villages have seen what were already occasional services being discontinued in the evenings and at weekends and, on some routes, the buses have stopped completely. That’s devastating for anyone who relies on these lifelines to the outside world.
Cumbria, for example, has cut 19 services to save £340,000 a year; in County Durham 70 mostly rural services are affected as the county council tries to save £1.3m. And the announcement by Transport Minister Norman Baker of £10m of new funding towards community transport services such as dial-a-ride is seen by many as inadequate.
Back in the 1970s, I reported on the crisis then confronting rural transport services. Minibuses were heralded as an answer, but for commercial operators, staffing costs were a problem. As one expert told me then: “You can’t expect minibus drivers to accept mini wages.” So subsidies were developed and, to an extent, the rural bus network survived; now it’s being unravelled by the swingeing spending cuts.
Rural areas have a higher percentage of pensioners and lower-income workers and it could be argued that they only have themselves to blame for not making full use of their bus services. But maybe these buses weren’t running at convenient times to the right places; and anyway, should we expect buses to be full if they’re connecting sparsely-populated areas?
Some councils are doing their utmost in stretched times to maintain as many routes as possible, while others are simply abandoning them. “It’s very much a postcode lottery,” says Sophie Allain of Campaign for Better Transport, “but rural bus users are becoming more vocal, especially as more cuts are expected next year.”
It’s true some services deserved the axe because they were blatantly ignored by those they were intended to serve. But the demise of many others will have serious social and economic consequences. Ringing the final bell on country bus routes seems symptomatic of what’s happening to rural Britain: it’s a great place to live, if you can afford it.