The councillor in charge of transport for the 5,750-mile road network across England’s largest county has announced the bus network is “facing a really grave situation”.
North Yorkshire County Council’s executive member for highways and transportation Councillor Keane Duncan issued the stark warning after a meeting of members representing communities from Selby to Skipton and Hawes to Whitby heard many commercially-run services were in peril or being downgraded.
Having had one of the UK’s most severe programme of cutbacks in public transport funding during austerity, the authority has ploughed £1.6m annually into subsidising scores of bus services.
The fears for the future of many of those and other routes come just seven months after the government revealed it had completely rejected North Yorkshire County Council’s bid for a £116m share of Boris Johnson’s high-profile Bus Back Better initiative, saying the local authority’s plans lacked ambition.
The council, which has been trialling a demand-responsive transport scheme around Ripon and Masham in the hope of finding a sustainable public transport solution for rural areas, is yet to announce any alternative public transport proposals to its rejected plans.
A meeting of the authority which declared a climate emergency earlier this year heard opposition members highlight the importance of public transport as a means of cutting carbon emissions and question the authority’s intentions over investing in the area.
Among those highlighting concerns over access to public transport, Liberal Democrat councillor for Pateley Bridge Andrew Murday said residents of his division faced having just two services a day to Harrogate.
He said: “We just have to do something about bus services, and encourage more people onto buses. We need to know how we are going to go about discouraging people from driving and encouraging people on to buses, so bus services can thrive.”
The meeting heard claims that council action was much more important in rural areas, where public transport was much less, if at all, available, and a call from Scarborough Labour councillor Tony Randerson for a “nationalised bus service”.
Coun Duncan responded saying bus services in the county were facing unprecedented pressure due to higher costs and passenger numbers falling to just 80 per cent of pre-Covid levels.
He said: “For many of the routes that represents the difference between profitability and not profitable services.
“It is important to point out that the bus network is North Yorkshire is facing a really grave situation. I think unprecedented pressure as a result of reduced passenger numbers, as a result of higher costs.
Coun Duncan said the services were at risk of being cut back or ceasing altogether, but there was “positive progress” with the prospect of government help so bus operators can cap single adult fares at £2 per journey, and that the authority was working to introduce between January and March.
Referring to bus sevices, he added: “The message across the county is use it or lose it. We need people to support these services.”
He said the authority subsidised routes to the tune of £1.6m annually, but the situation in the county would “outstrip that many times over”, adding: “That subsidy is not at a level that which we would be able to support those 79 routes, so it is a very grave situation.”
He said the authority had attracted £15m government funding for active travel in recent years “a real success for us as an authority”.
Coun Duncan said if the authority was to provide “a truly nationalised service” that would represent 100 times the £1.6m it provided in subsidies.
He added: “Creating a nationalised service would not solve those fundamental issues if those operators are not there to deliver those services.”
“There may be more that we could do to become more interventionist in terms of the bus network, but at the moment the backbone of the county’s bus service is the commercial operators.”