Tough times on the buses in Norfolk as MPs warn of spending review impact
Bus travellers across the region could see services axed and fares increase as a result of funding cuts to operators, a report from MPs warns today.
The House of Commons Transport Committee document said the government's 2010 spending review included three funding decisions which had 'created the greatest financial challenge for the English bus industry for a generation'.
The committee called on the Department for Transport to monitor the extent of bus service cutbacks and review service provision, and said the government must not 'wash its hands' of all responsibility for local bus services.
It said: 'The government claims it wants to see better bus services with many more smartcard-enabled journeys.
'Yet, following the government's spending review, we have seen a significant number of bus services withdrawn around the country and there is every indication that fares are set to rise well above the rate of inflation in some areas. We know that more than 70pc of local authorities have moved rapidly to reduce funding for (council) supported bus services, forcing most operators to withdraw services and/or push up fares.
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'For the most part it is rural, evening and Sunday services that are most affected.'
The three spending decisions referred to were a 28pc reduction in local authority revenue expen-diture, a change in the formula for concessionary travel reimburse-ments, and a 20pc reduction in the Bus Service Operators Grant from 2012/13 (BSOG).
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Ben Colson, managing director of Norfolk Green, which operates services in west and north Norfolk and parts of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, described the cuts as being 'like an axe being wielded by three hands'.
He said operators faced unprecedented central government BSOG cuts next April and the combined impact of this on top of possible local government cuts to subsidised routes would be in certain areas quite devastating for passengers.
'The assumption is that we will simply put up our fares, but I do not believe we should penalise those people who do not receive concessionary fares,' he said.
'It is much more sensible to maintain those routes that we can afford and say that there are some routes that we cannot afford to run.'
He said it was likely that rural areas in west and north Norfolk were likely to be hit harder than Norwich.
Charles Sanders, managing director of Sanders Coaches which operates across north Norfolk, said the company was especially affected because about 70pc of its passengers use the concessionary bus passes and on some routes it often does not take one fare from a passenger.
'When the BSOG cuts happens next April we have got to pass that on to somebody. I really do not know how we are going to deal with it yet because the few people that do pay to travel with us cannot sustain that increase,' he said.
'We increased the fares earlier in the year but we try to only do it once a year because we are not in a high income area and people can only afford so much.'
He added: 'We may end up having to work out where we can continue to operate and which routes we cannot.
'We want to keep all of the routes because we have worked really hard to establish the best bus network in north Norfolk people have had in a lifetime.'
Steve Wickers, South East and Midlands commercial director for First Group Buses, which operates throughout Norwich and across other parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, said: 'Most of our services are commercial so not subject to subsidised route funding, but the funding reimbursing concessionary fares is lower than it has been in the past.
'Going forward we have to realign our business to any cuts which unfortunately could mean reductions in some services.'
He said that one of the options to recoup any loss in funding could be through bus fares.
'The effect of the cuts on the bus industry is ever-challenging,' he said.
Julian Patterson, operations and commercial director for Dereham-based Konectbus which runs services throughout mid Norfolk and into Norwich, said: 'We are used to dealing with ups and downs, and are budgeting for the cuts. We will adapt to whatever we have to.'
He said some operational efficiencies may have to be made to counter reduction in funding.
He said last month Konectbus made a reduction in the frequency of some services such as from Dereham to Wendling and Scarning but it had also increased the frequency of its services from Dereham to Norwich and started a new service from Attleborough to Norwich.
He said the company had increased its fares last year and will probably be increasing its fares in the next six months.
Andrew Pursey, director of Anglian Bus, which operates across Norfolk and Suffolk, said: 'It is a difficult time for the whole industry and our feeling is that across the industry the current network will change dramatically from 2012/13.
'We are seeing cuts from numerous places. One of them we could absorb but cuts from three different areas will have an effect on the viability of certain bus routes.
'Some services we do are very strong but some of the areas particularly in rural Suffolk may face challenges.
'We cannot afford to subsidise routes.'
A spokesman for Wymondham-based bus and coach company Semmence said it was not affected as much as some companies by the cuts but added that the fuel rises without a correlative rise in the BSOG had effectively tripled the cost of fuel to bus operators and so made some service effectively uneconomical.
He said the most important thing for the long-term future was surviving the next 12 months.
Graham Plant, Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for planning, transportation and travel, explained that while the county's bus operators absorbed �1.2m of the shortfall in central government funding for concessionary fares, the county council had currently had to pay for the remaining �3m shortfall and, following a meeting with Norman Baker, under secretary of state for transport, the council was waiting to hear if it will get the funding back.
Mr Plant said this �3m could be used to maintain subsidies for certain bus services and he called on Norfolk's MPs to lobby for the return of the money.
'We have an excellent group of MPs in Norfolk that are fantastic at lobbying. They have been successful with the RAF Marham campaign and are lobbying for the rail services. It would be marvellous if they could lobby for this too because that could release this money for front-line services.'
He also said the government needed to change its policy about concessionary bus fares and that when talking to bus pass users, many people said they would not mind paying a contribution such as 50p to the fare.
He said the council had an excellent relationship with the bus operators and was committed to keeping the buses on the road in as many routes as possible.