Local authority leaders have accused the Department for Transport of forcing councils to keep private bus companies afloat at the expense of local taxpayers.
Councils have a statutory duty to administer the concessionary bus travel scheme in England, which provides older and disabled people with free off-peak travel on all local bus services in England. Local authorities reimburse bus operators for all journeys made by people with a concessionary pass.
However, since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Government has asked councils to make these payments to bus providers based on pre-COVID-19 concessionary travel levels.
This is despite bus usage having dropped by 67% since March with many of those eligible for a concessionary pass being forced by the pandemic to remain at home.
The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling on the Department for Transport to end this emergency measure.
The association says the link between concessionary payments and the number of journeys being made is ‘broken’ with the scheme already underfunded by Government by around £700m a year before the pandemic. Councils are being forced to make up the shortfall.
‘Councils want to work with the Government to improve and protect bus provision during the crisis and beyond but it is increasingly clear that it is unsustainable to ask councils to continue to prop up local bus operators for a national scheme that is already underfunded,’ said Cllr David Renard, LGA transport spokesman.
‘The free bus pass provides a vital service for our communities. It allows many vulnerable residents to go shopping, pick up medication, and attend doctors’ appointments.
‘Years of underfunding of the scheme has left councils struggling to subsidise the scheme. This is now increasingly impossible amid pre-existing funding and demand pressures on local services, some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
‘Councils know how important buses are for their residents and local economies and are desperate to protect them. It is vital this scheme is properly funded so councils can protect bus routes and reinvest in local networks.’
The Department for Transport denies that they are forcing councils to subsidise bus companies.
Bus operators are not allowed to make a profit whilst in receipt of Coronavirus Bus Service Support Grant (CBSSG) therefore they argue that this funding does not contribute to private sector profits.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: ‘Buses are vital for connecting people, homes and businesses, and concessionary bus travel is a lifeline for many older people who can use it to get to shops more safely and peacefully before rush hour.
‘We have provided unprecedented support to ensure that bus services can continue to operate for everyone who needs to them during the pandemic, committing over £1.1bn this financial year.’