St Albans bus routes slashed amid 77 per cent council funding cuts

The 653 bus service in St Albans

The 653 bus service in St Albans - Credit: Archant

Eleven bus routes serving St Albans and Harpenden have been withdrawn, reduced or privatised in the last two years following county-wide funding cuts.

The 653 bus service in St Albans

The 653 bus service in St Albans - Credit: Archant

Acres of newsprint have been devoted recently to problems with the country’s rail network and congested roads.

But over recent years a quiet funding crisis has emerged in one of our most-used forms of transport - buses - and the numbers suggest that the effects are beginning to be felt.

Changes have impacted the S1, S4, 610, 601, 307, 315, 653, HA1, 331, 655, and the SC1 - and many more services outside of St Albans district.

The local routes connect a variety of places, including through St Albans city centre, Harpenden, Kimpton, and Sandridge.

Across Hertfordshire, bus funding has plummeted from £8,134,901 in 2010-11, to £1,833,897 in 2018-19.

This amounts to a 77 per cent funding cut county-wide in eight years.

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It’s a problem that’s reflected nationwide, says the Campaign for Better Transport in its 2018 report “Buses in Crisis”.

According to a Freedom of Information request made to Herts county council (HCC) by the campaign since March 2016, 53 bus routes in the county have been reduced, withdrawn or taken on commercially.

Some of these changes will have a relatively minimal impact, such as the 331 which disappeared in January 2017 because there was a duplicate route or the reduction of the 653, which now runs less frequently on a Sunday.

However, some reductions are bound to have had a bigger impact, such as the complete withdrawal of the SC1 between St Albans Abbey and city station when a Government grant ran out.

The Buses in Crisis report notes that “cuts in bus services add to poverty and social exclusion, and to isolation and loneliness”.

This is also likely to disproportionately impact elderly people and people with disabilities.

Since 2010, roughly one third of Hertfordshire bus journeys have consistently been taken by people who hold old persons’ or disabled persons’ bus passes, and their bus usage has gone down by even more - 15 per cent.

Councillor Derrick Ashley, Cabinet Member for Growth, Infrastructure, Planning and the Economy, said that the council has no direct obligation to fund non-commercial buses but will subsidise services “where there is a reasonable demand and is justified on a cost benefit basis”.

“We have to prioritise expenditure and that has meant some tough decisions in regard to how much we can step in to save or run buses if they are little used and not commercially viable.

“However, we continue to provide significant levels of investment into non-commercial services and work hard with partners such as the local district and borough councils to maximise and build on the support we and others do provide.

“We continue to offer one of the most generous discounts for young people in education with our SaverCard scheme and work hard to secure funding from new developments.

“While it would be nice to have more money to support bus travel that is unlikely to happen as budgets get squeezed further.”

The council is in the process of considering the government’s 2017 Bus Services Act.

This legislation aimed to strengthen public-private arrangements by introducing Enhanced Partnerships, put decision making for franchising at a local level, and encourage passenger information to be more widely circulated.

In a meeting on July 5, council officers felt that some of the suggestions in the act are similar to what has already been achieved in Hertfordshire, though they are considering taking that further.

However, while the act focuses largely on solutions through partnerships, it does not actually provide any new funding to help councils subsidise their bus services.

“The best and most reliable way to ensure bus routes are maintained is for people to make greater use of the services available,” said Cllr Ashley.

“I’m afraid in reality it is a case of use it or lose it.”

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