Local taxpayers are keeping private bus companies afloat

The Local Government Association has warned that concessionary fare funding is being used to prop up private bus companies.

Councils leaders have claimed that an emergency government measure forcing councils to fund concessionary bus fares at pre-coronavirus travel levels means local taxpayers are keeping private bus companies afloat rather than paying for journeys. This is despite passenger numbers plummeting during the pandemic.

Councils have a statutory duty to administer the concessionary bus travel scheme in England. The scheme provides older and disabled people with free off-peak travel on all local bus services in England with councils responsible for reimbursing bus operators for journeys made by those with a pass.

However, since the outbreak of the pandemic, the government has asked councils to make these payments to bus providers based on pre-virus concessionary travel levels, despite bus usage having dropped by 67 per cent since March.

The LGA is calling on the Department for Transport to end this emergency measure amid growing concerns by councils about its sustainability and the impact it is having on council budgets being stretched the limit by the costs of the pandemic. It argues that the link between concessionary payments and the number of journeys being made is ‘broken’ with the scheme underfunded by government by around £700 million a year before the pandemic. This has left councils having to subsidise the scheme at the cost of other essential services.

David Renard, LGA Transport spokesman, said: “Councils want to work with the government to improve and protect bus provision during the crisis and beyond but it is increasingly clear that it is unsustainable to ask councils to continue to prop up local bus operators for a national scheme that is already underfunded. The free bus pass provides a vital service for our communities. It allows many vulnerable residents to go shopping, pick up medication, and attend doctors’ appointments.

“Years of underfunding of the scheme has left councils struggling to subsidise the scheme. This is now increasingly impossible amid pre-existing funding and demand pressures on local services, some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Councils know how important buses are for their residents and local economies and are desperate to protect them. It is vital this scheme is properly funded so councils can protect bus routes and reinvest in local networks.”