All over rural England, bus stops are gently rusting. Timetables that still advertise long-cancelled bus services are fading and peeling. Bus shelters are silent, beginning to decay, or being reclaimed by nature. No more will the 9am Shoppers link, or the twice weekly market bus run, leaving the pretty village of little Wittering for the big town of Gammon Magna, 10 or 20 miles away across country.
The reasons for this decline are many, but internal migration by those seeking the quiet country life has done just that; it’s quiet. Boy, is it quiet!
Decline in rural bus services
Rural villages may be far better kept than they were before the war, but, in just the same way that the domestic cat predates on the local wildlife, the private car has vanquished the country bus. Of course, if you don’t have access to a car you are in a bit of a fix, and this has become a problem for hard-pressed councils trying to maintain connectivity for all.
The decline in bus services has now also become an issue for towns in rural England, and we may soon see many small and medium-sized towns without a bus service. This will be bad for community cohesion, and catastrophic for the process of achieving a carbon-free future.
Deal, in Kent, may soon become one of those bus-free urban areas, and might find itself having a high-speed rail service with no connecting bus services. This is the opposite of what Dr Beeching prophesied back in in 1963. The only bus operator, Stagecoach, has given notice on 60% of the local bus services, leaving only three routes, which may themselves be cut or reduced in frequency.
Kent has just been the recipient of £35m of Bus Service Improvement money from national UK government under the Bus back better policy. But they are still cutting services to villages.
Dover Fastrack bus service
It does appear that the County Council has fallen into the trap of what I term ‘distraction policy making’. With distraction policy making, the problems to be faced are so immense that an organisation spends considerable resources in time and money on a show piece project, whilst seeking to divert attention away from those problems.
The County Council has several similar diversionary projects but, in Deal, all attention is diverted towards the Dover Fastrack bus service now being constructed nine miles away. This £34m scheme, 96% funded by the Government, will no doubt provide a bang up-to-the-minute electric bus service for those living in Whitfield on the outskirts of Dover, but will they use it, and could the money have been better spent in increasing bus passenger numbers throughout Southeast Kent instead?
What is the point of a snazzy electric bus service, serving one small area, when large parts of rural and urban East Kent become bus-less public transport deserts?
Nobody in Deal will be using Fastrack because there will be no connectivity. The car, yet again, will be the only option, which will add to congestion and delay the inevitable decarbonisation that the climate change crisis will force upon us all.
It is galling to see stories about new trams, new electric or hydrogen buses, lower fares, bus priority work and new ticketing systems elsewhere in the large metropolises of England, but here in Southeast Kent the experience is one of decline, clapped-out buses and despair.
I think we have come to the end of the road with the bus deregulation legislation of 1985, and in relying on what are highways-focussed shire counties to deliver connectivity and transport for all. The large private bus operators, with mostly overseas ownership, are not interested in the affairs of Little Wittering or Gammon Magna. They are focussed instead on deal making and large metropolitan operations. Local government is focussed on balancing budgets and the growing cost of social care. Local transport, and especially bus services, is falling further down the agenda. I think what we need is a new organisation for the regions of England, except for those metropolitan areas.
New regional bus organisation
This organisation, which could have the working title of Regional Buses, would not be a revival of the old National bus company, but would instead be an operator of last resort, taking over where the ‘Big 5’ bus companies retreat to their urban redoubts. It would take over all the non-metropolitan bus operations, decarbonise them, and help the smaller bus operator sector to grow and prosper with new decarbonised buses, which are capital intensive but offer lower operating costs. The ‘Big 5’ bus companies shut down the smaller operators and removed the localism that fostered community loyalty to their local blue, yellow, red or green bus, and now they are retreating rapidly towards what they perceive as suitable profit centres where they can get the level of return they, and their overseas masters, think is appropriate.
This is not nationalisation but is instead localism made good. How would it be funded? Partly from general taxation, partly from fares, partly from developer contributions, partly from street parking charges and perhaps, more controversially, from congestion charging.
No one likes paying tax; no one wants to pay more for parking or having the freedom to park, where you like, when you like and how you like, restricted. However, with 32m cars on the road and, in many towns, 1950s highways infrastructure, we cannot manage or build our way out of congestion anymore.
It is time that the bus, along with other forms of public transport, and of course walking and cycling, should take priority in policy making.
Editor’s Note. This is an opinion piece from one locality in Kent. Does anyone else have views on their local bus services? Those who want to find out more about the policy making of KCC with regard to its spend on buses, read the Kent Bus Improvement Strategy Document (134 pages including usage and cost tables). Will anyone volunteer to do an analysis of this for Kent Bylines?