Off the beaten tracks

A recent study by Labour has warned that more than 30 million miles of bus journeys have been lost to cuts, leaving many people and communities isolated. And it is Britain’s rural areas that are hit worst. The Labour frontbench’s excellent new shadow secretary of state for transport, Michael Dugher, claims that vital rural routes have been the first to suffer from coalition transport cuts, which is further exacerbated by the 25 per cent increase in bus fares since 2010 – a rise five times higher than wages.

To be completely frank, those of us living in rural areas could have told anybody this without recourse to an expensive study. Indeed, this is something that I can personally vouch for: until relatively recently I was a long-term unemployed young person living in the Norfolk countryside. In this situation, access to areas of opportunity was all-important to my prospects of finding gainful employment. I was, however, enormously held back by public transport deficiencies – partly brought about by budget cuts, with poor planning also being a problem. Due to these deficiencies, a number of important local areas of employment were difficult to get to or back from. As a result, I could not physically get to numerous potential jobs, even though they were within my officially designated job search area. Indeed, the journey to the job centre itself was a round-trip of 30 miles, with the work programme an even bigger commute of 50 miles there and back by public buses. This was uncomfortable, time-consuming and very expensive for someone living on £70 a week.

With the public transport cuts brought about by the coalition government, numerous communities, up and down the United Kingdom, find themselves cut off and isolated. Anna Turley, the brilliant parliamentary candidate for Redcar, has highlighted the plight of a woman named Jean who she met one morning on a doorstep session in the village of Lazenby. She was waiting for a taxi to take her to her GP. It soon became clear to Anna that there was now no bus service operating in the village at all, leaving many residents who were not able, or could not afford to learn, to drive either reliant on expensive taxis – eating in to already limited pensions or insufficient minimum wages – or be left stranded.

It is instances such a this that make Labour’s announcement on the re-regulation of bus services in the provinces – until now a privilege only benefiting Londoners, who would surely be dismayed if their buses were run the way most people’s are – absolutely vital and very welcome to beleaguered non-urban communities. For Lazenby, the Arriva bus service, which holds a near-monopoly on services in Redcar and Cleveland, cut the route and were completely unaccountable to the public, despite pressure from local councillors.

Labour’s commitment to re-regulate bus services outside London will give the regions more control over their public transport systems. In this way, the isolation felt by the village of Lazenby, or my own difficulty accessing areas of opportunity, will not be repeated.

While this is good, it almost goes without saying that a Labour government’s public transport reforms must go further if it is to alleviate the pressure felt by people in coast and country areas and form a recovery that benefits the many rather than just a few.

This is something that Labour: Coast & Country’s first publication, Off the Beaten Tracks, has attempted to highlight and champion within the Labour movement:

Community transport initiatives, such as Wigtownshire Community Transport in south-west Scotland, offers a good example of alternative schemes that help alleviate rural isolation. The WCT is innovative in that it makes use of council, and even NHS, vehicles during their downtime, making their use more efficient. Overall, the WCT – and other similar initiatives highlighted in Off the Beaten Tracks – represents an important lifeline for the non-urban communities it serves.

Bwcabus, funded by the European Union, in the Vale of Glamorgan, operates on demand and provides a flexible service through ‘dynamic scheduling’ – a schedule that reacts and changes according to daily variations in demand. As such, it is a bus service with no set timetable.

This system of ‘dynamic scheduling’ makes use of sophisticated technology, incorporating satellite communication and a computerised scheduling and booking module. This effectively enables residents to call the service at least three hours before the journey to book a bus. The booking is then added to the route, scheduled and printed. Bwcabus has been in service for five years and has gone from strength to strength in that time. It has also been very well received locally, gaining 100 per cent satisfaction ratings for the quality of the service. There has also been a staggering 40 per cent increase in public transport use in the area.

While the technology is advanced and this project has thus far been limited to one area, we must ask why similar systems con not be rolled-out across different parts of the UK. I would urge the Labour party to bring this Welsh innovation in to consideration.

Off the Beaten Tracks also advocates the avoidance of siloed approaches to transport in favour of the creation of integrated transport systems. Effectively, this would remove the command and control influence of Westminster from bus and other transport services in Coast & Country areas, and bring decision-making down to individual communities. It is perhaps best described as the ‘common sense’ approach, with councils, bus, train and other transport coming together to design mutually beneficial services, creating something truly joined up and integrated. As a result, bus services would work in time with train times; public transport would be routed to provide access to public service, like healthcare; and long-term planning can be introduced to local transport concerns.

Ultimately, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of good transport links – of physical connectivity and access to goods, services, healthcare, employment, entertainment – to rural communities and people. I would even describe transport as one of Britain’s great social and economic equalisers. In communities where these necessities of life, aspiration and care cannot be accessed by all people, then inequality and poverty inevitably follows. This is what the Tories’ ‘austerity transport’ has reduced many communities to, and what the Labour party must fight to reverse and better. Labour needs a revolution in its thinking and approach to public transport if Britain is to get the transport infrastructure it needs.

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Jack Eddy is national coordinator for Labour: Coast & Country and an executive committee member of the Labour Transport Group. He tweets @NorfolkJackEddy

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Photo: Ian Britton

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