Hundreds more of England’s dwindling bus services could be axed next week with a funding shortfall looming, transport authorities have warned.
Labour said the government had “just 10 days to act” before operators start having to cut routes because of the expiry of post-pandemic state support.
The bus recovery grant, brought in to keep services running as passenger numbers slowly returned after Covid-19, will run out at the end of March, after an emergency £130m six-month extension averted a similar financial cliff-edge last summer.
Although the government says it has spent more than £2bn propping up bus services since the start of the pandemic, no long-term funding arrangement has yet been decided. The Urban Transport Group, which represents the seven biggest city transport authorities, has warned the Treasury that public transport “hangs in the balance” as the funding deadline approaches.
Bus operators have to give six weeks notice of planned cuts or alterations to routes, with many under review. According to the Confederation of Passenger Transport [CPT], which represents bus companies, about 10-15% of services could be cut.
According to analysis by Labour, that means over 1,600 more routes could be affected this spring, leaving England with fewer than 10,000 routes for the first time since the numbers were first recorded, just over 20 years ago.
Shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said the government was “asleep at the wheel, risking the future of services millions of passengers depend on”.
She added: “They have 10 days to act, or services could plunge to a record low. After 13 years of the Conservatives, the bus services communities depend on are stumbling from one crisis to the next.”
Graham Vidler, CPT chief executive, said: “Bus passengers face uncertainty because local authorities and operators are in limbo over keeping some services afloat, if the Bus Recovery Grant is not replaced in April.
“Without a replacement, government support for bus services next year is set to be over 20% lower in real terms than a decade previously. While operators and local authorities will work hard to protect vital services, a reduction of government funding in April could lead to a nationwide 10-15% reduction in bus services.”
Operating costs have increased significantly, with fuel and wage increases running above inflation, while passenger numbers in many places remain below pre-Covid levels.
Jonathan Bray, director of the Urban Transport Group, said that longer-term certainty of funding was needed for transport authorities to keep providing buses. He said: “The future of bus services in England hangs in the balance. Government has provided welcome financial support for the bus, but – with passenger numbers still well below pre-pandemic levels – we urgently need a decision to continue funding otherwise many services will disappear overnight.”
The Department for Transport has been approached for comment.