LIFELINE: Scarlet Band is a significant operator of rural bus services in Teesdale. Taxpayers’ cash is used to support the services after they were deemed to be non-commercial
LIFELINE: Scarlet Band is a significant operator of rural bus services in Teesdale. Taxpayers’ cash is used to support the services after they were deemed to be non-commercial

A SWATHE of “significant cuts” expected to be revealed from 2020 onwards could see non-commercial bus services for rural areas in the region scrapped, it is feared.

Members of the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC) — made up of council leaders from Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland, and Durham — heard last week that the cash shortage was of “considerable concern”.

Local transport bosses estimate that they will face a shortfall of £29million to meet concessionary travel costs in 2019/20 due to planned cuts in the funding provided by central government.

Many rural Teesdale bus routes are funded by Durham County Council after the previous operator, Arriva, deemed them to be unviable and pulled out. Following a public campaign to save them in 2011, the county council agreed to prop them up with public funding and Scarlet Band was given the contract.

It is not yet clear if or how these routes would be affected by funding cuts. But the committee warns that rural services would be cut to make up the shortfall.

Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon, chairman of the North East Joint Transport Committee, said: “There is a diminishing pot, but it is also being distributed increasingly unfairly.”

He criticised changes proposed to the government’s formula used to allocate funding that are based on population size rather than need.

The report by the committee warned: “Providing accessible transport is a priority for the North East Joint Committee and next year we will be protecting transport services by temporarily using reserves until the funding issues are addressed.

“However this is clearly not sustainable in future years, particularly when the gradual increase in the age at which people become eligible for the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme reaches 66, at which point we anticipate a significant uplift in our costs as the number of those satisfying the eligibility criteria will at first settle and then begin to increase.

“We will therefore be developing options and consulting on significant cuts to transport services from 2020 onwards. This would potentially include cuts in discretionary services, such as secured bus services and discretionary fares.

“This would mean withdrawing non-commercial bus services for all ages, including people trying to get to work outside of peak travel times and from more rural or sparsely populated areas.”

Local authorities are legally obliged to provide free bus passes for pensioners and some disabled people, but the North East also offers a range of other discounted travel options that could be under threat.

The JTC report warns that withdrawing concessionary fares on the Metro, in Newcastle, would actually exacerbate the problem because the resulting increased demand for free bus travel would exceed the income generated by charging a commercial Metro fare to those previously eligible for the concession.

The JTC says it will be issuing a “strong response” to a government consultation on the funding changes and seek reassurances they the Department for Transport will help “avoid particularly damaging cuts to transport services for children, students, workers and the elderly”.

The report adds: “We are most concerned that the proposal for the distribution of funding by way of a foundation formula will create an even wider funding gap and create a less fair funding system in future years.”

Launching the consultation, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government James Brokenshire said: “Every day, local authorities and the many hard-working, dedicated people who work for them deliver vital services, improving the lives of the most vulnerable in the communities they serve.

“I am determined, therefore, to ensure every council gets the resources and support to rise to new challenges, grow their economies and deliver opportunity for all.

“Central to this is the question of how we should allocate the funding we have, and I am confident we can design a funding formula local authorities have faith in; one that draws a more understandable link between the need for services and local funding.”