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Stephen Joseph, Executive Director, Campaign for Better Transport

“…fending off further cuts and getting some funding restored.”

Stephen Joseph, Executive Director, Campaign for Better Transport

Stephen Joseph, Executive Director, Campaign for Better Transport

In the UK and most other countries, buses are the main form of public transport, carrying far more people than trains or metros. But their contribution isn’t appreciated by politicians or the media, making them vulnerable to cuts in public funding in times of austerity.

This has certainly been the case in the UK – the different forms of public funding for buses have all been reduced in various ways as part of the Government’s austerity programme. The ‘Bus Service Operators Grant’ (BSOG) – a long established grant that in effect rebates the duty on fuel used by operators – was reduced in England by 20%, and has been restructured and reduced by the devolved governments in Wales and Scotland. Cuts in central government grants to local authorities have resulted in reductions in subsidised services and also in school transport.

These are just the direct reductions. A more subtle problem has arisen with the concessionary travel scheme – in the UK pensioners and people with disabilities get free bus travel as a statutory right, with operators being reimbursed by local councils, which in turn get government funding to pay for this. However, the government funding doesn’t cover the full costs of the scheme, leaving councils having to cut elsewhere to fund the scheme and operators having to cover costs themselves. 

The combination of these, with the general reduction in bus use from the recession, has led to problems for operators and councils alike. Generally, the commercial operators have tended to raise fares rather than cut their services – bus fares have risen in cash terms by a third in the last five years. The reaction of councils has varied – some have reduced their bus funding to almost nothing, while others have opted to keep services going.

As a campaign group which seeks to improve and promote public transport, we have reacted to this. We ran a campaign in 2010 to persuade the government not to axe BSOG entirely (at one point it seemed as if the grant would be cut entirely rather than just by 20%). From this we developed a ‘Save our Buses’ campaign to make the cuts in buses nationally visible and to explain the benefits of buses to local and national politicians.

The campaign has succeeded in:

  • Bringing together a wide range of groups to put pressure on the government to support rather than cut bus funding
  • Creating a national picture of bus cuts, with inter-active maps, social media and surveys of councils to see what is happening on the ground
  • Supporting local campaigners seeking to save local bus services, with a campaigners guide and other materials
  • Supporting a campaigner in challenging the legality of a decision by Cambridgeshire County Council to cut all bus funding – faced with this challenge the council changed its mind and reinstated some services
  • Gaining widespread media coverage at national level for buses, which has been difficult to achieve since buses are seen as a local issue.

Through all of this, we have been highlighting the wider benefits of buses, especially the contribution they make to giving people without cars access to jobs and education, and also to health services and shops. We sent researchers into two communities where sharp bus cuts had happened to see what the results had been – social isolation and lack of access to shops were two of the effects they found.

We are now working with councils to show what further cuts in bus funding would mean in terms of reduced access to employment – a core objective of the government is to get unemployed people into work and bus cuts harm that objective.

Throughout this we have worked with bus operators, user groups and some local authorities – there has been parallel work by industry groupings such as Greener Journeys and by local authority groupings, notably the Passenger Transport Executive Group (pteg) representing the big city authorities. We have been able to enlist a wide range of social groups, especially those representing young people who have perhaps been hardest hit by cuts in services and higher fares. 

We are continuing our campaigning and hope to be successful in fending off further cuts and getting some funding restored.

Biography

Stephen Joseph has been Executive Director of Campaign for Better Transport since 1988. His wide-ranging expertise and contacts have helped to make the organisation the country’s leading transport NGO. The last 20-plus years have had many highlights for Stephen, including persuading the Treasury to cut the road-building programme in the 1990s, campaigning against the privatisation of the railways and running a Sardine Man campaign to highlight the overcrowded state of this country’s ‘sardine tin’ trains. Stephen was a member of the Commission for Integrated Transport from 1999-2005, having been one of the panel of external advisers on the Transport White Paper 1997-8, and was a member of the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) during its inquiry on transport and the economy. He was also on the steering group for the government’s road user charging feasibility study 2003-4. More recently he has been a member of challenge panels or advisory groups for government plans on high-speed rail, eco-towns, transport appraisal and the Local Sustainable Transport Fund. Stephen was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1996 for services to transport and the environment, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hertfordshire in November 2010.