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People living off the beaten track and without access to private transport are being left isolated by repeated cuts in rural bus services.

That’s according to new research from the Local Government Association (LGA), which says that subsidised bus services in England have been reduced by more than 12% in the past year. Although commercial bus companies are happy to run services on routes which make a profit, they are understandably less willing to do so on loss-making routes. 

Profitable routes tend to be in and around densely populated areas such as towns and cities, while those which make a loss generally serve less populated places, rural areas with scattered villages. In most cases these rural services have long been “propped up” by cash subsidies from local councils. But as councils find themselves increasingly strapped for cash, the subsidies are being withdrawn, leading to fewer and less frequent rural bus services.

The LGA, which represents councils in England and Wales, says Government cuts to local councils’ budgets are to blame for the vanishing subsidies. It says the Government focuses too much on expensive and headline-grabbing rail schemes, even though three times more journeys were taken on buses than trains in Britain last year.

Councils also have a legal duty to provide the Concessionary Fares Scheme in their local area, giving pensioners and disable people free off-peak travel on local bus services. The LGA says councils are now having to divert money previously used to subsidise bus routes in order to fund a gap in the Concessionary Fares Scheme.

In some places this has led to the bizarre situation in which pensioners have a free bus pass, but no buses near their homes to use it on. Martin Tett, the LGA’s spokesman on transport issues, said if it is vital that the Government accepts responsibility to fully fund the Concessionary Fares Scheme, especially as the proportion of older people continues to grow. That would allow councils to prioritise their limited resources on subsidising vital bus routes.

The Department of Transport counters that it wants to see bus services thrive, especially in rural areas. To that end it is working with local bus companies to improve services and boost the use of buses to make them more profitable.

But for communities where bus routes have been withdrawn due to lack of funding, it is already too late. Many older people who choose to stop driving or simply cannot afford to run a car, are left isolated. As more and more services are concentrated in larger towns, they are forced to rely on taxis or friends and family to attend medical appointment, visit their bank or even just go shopping.

In some places, fresh approaches and new ways of funding have had to be found to keep vital and valued services running. In North Yorkshire, the main bus services are supplemented by others on less commercially viable routes supported by the Dales and Bowland Community Interest Group. Run by volunteers, this is a not-for-profit enterprise and a subsidiary of registered charity The Yorkshire Dales Society.

It seeks funding from various sources to maintain rural bus services, one of which has just been saved from possible closure through sponsorship by Acorn Stairlifts. We have offered to fund the popular 856 “Wensleydale Flyer” service between Northallerton and Hawes throughout the whole of 2017. This service runs on Sundays and Bank Holidays and provides a lifeline to a string of small village communities and outlying properties along the 40-mile route.

Three-quarters of those using the service are local residents, although it is also popular with visitors in the summer months. Unfortunately, ticket sales alone are not enough to pay for the service, which needs other funding such as donations from local authorities, individuals and businesses. It is so valued that a crowdfunding website recently raised £6,500 in individual donations.

That money would have kept the service going from the end of October, when the previous funding ran out, through to next Easter. But now Acorn Stairlifts has stepped in to fund the renamed “Acorn Wensleydale Flyer” (pictured), initially for 12 months beginning in January. It means part of the crowdfunding money can be held in reserve as a safety net.

The sponsorship came about after Acorn’s design studio manager Emma Slater spotted a newspaper story that the service was under threat: “As someone who has relied on rural public transport to get to work, the plight of the threatened service really struck a chord with me,” said Emma.

“People who live in rural areas are particularly vulnerable to the effects of cuts in public transport. At Acorn Stairlifts we are acutely aware of the link between mobility and physical and mental health, and we recognise that lack of good transport can lead to practical difficulties, isolation and loneliness for a lot of people. Many of our customers rely on services like this and we were delighted to be able to give something back to our local community with this gesture.”

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