They’re used by millions of people across the country every day and are described by Boris Johnson as being key to his ‘levelling up’ vision to spread opportunity around the country.
But in Greater Manchester and around the North of England, local bus services face an uncertain future amid declining passenger numbers, a driver shortage and fears the industry could fall off a financial cliff.
Transport bosses across the country fear vital bus routes could be cut when emergency Covid funding runs out at the end of March, with operators facing a drop in revenue as passenger numbers are yet to return to their pre-pandemic levels.
That’s why The Northern Agenda political newsletter is carrying out a survey on the state of bus services in Greater Manchester and further afield. We’re building up a picture of how often people use local buses, what might tempt them back and whether they believe fundamental reform is needed to the system.
Have your say in The Northern Agenda’s Big Bus Survey:
This week Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham joined with other Labor metro mayors in warning that failing to continue subsidizing services risked causing lasting damage to communities still recovering from the pandemic.
The MEN reported last month that although starting to improve, passenger numbers are still only a fraction of pre-covid levels, while staff absence and a general shortage of drivers nationwide are also affecting services.
Bus operators and Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) have received more than £100m from the Government in emergency support since the pandemic began.
In a report presented to GMCA in October, it shows that TfGM has passed on an average of £3m a month to operators using funds provided by the Department for Transport.
However, that funding expires in April, and transport leaders here have confirmed to the Manchester Evening News that there is ‘uncertainty’ about whether future cash will be made available.
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Potentially most at risk are those services which, because bus operators cannot make a profit on them, are subsidized by the public purse, through TfGM.
They often serve routes through isolated communities, hospitals, or run outside peak hours.
Transport bosses already have to make difficult decisions throughout the year on which services they can afford to subsidize, but the loss of emergency funding could place much more in jeopardy.
Last year the Prime Minister announced that £3bn would be spent on “new funding to level up buses across England towards London standards” as part of the government’s “bus back better” strategy.
He said: “I love buses and I have never quite understood why so few governments before mine have felt the same way,” adding that “better buses will be one of our major acts of leveling up”.
But it has since emerged that the budget for the “transformation” of buses – a pot from which local regions can bid for funds – has now shrunk to just £1.4bn for the next three years.
Figures compiled by the shadow buses minister Sam Tarry’s office for The Observer show the amount of funding bids submitted by 53 out of 79 local transport authorities from the extra funding pot is already more than £7bn. This suggests the total is likely to exceed £9bn, against a total available of £1.4bn.
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