The use of post buses is one of the examples of good practice highlighted by the Rural Development Commission in Country Lifelines - Good Practice in Rural Transport, published this month. The RDC believes it is essential that public transport subsidies in rural areas are maintained despite the financial pressures on local government which are seeing many other services cut back in the current round of budget-setting.
The Post Office has established a network of 232 post bus services, covering 3.5 million miles of road, and it is extending the service into more areas where local authorities are willing to provide the necessary subsidy.
Six villages to the north of Lutterworth in Leicestershire have been cut off from daily bus services for many years. Through an agreement supported by the RDC, Leicestershire County Council provides an annual pounds 8,000 grant to the Post Office to lay on a post bus, connecting the villages with Lutterworth for a minimum of five years. A further grant of pounds 4,500 was provided by the Rural Transport Development Fund, which is administered by the RDC on behalf of the Department of Transport.
The RDC grant gave the Post Office half the capital cost of replacing its existing delivery van with a minibus. The Royal Mail retains the pounds 1,400 a year it collects in fares. The county council's subsidy is based on the marginal costs of taking a less direct route when delivering and collecting mail. Each day's journey has an average of four to five passengers.
Rural transport can be improved without new expenditure. Devon County Council spends more than pounds 20m a year in support for public transport, but has achieved savings of pounds 2.5m a year while adding around pounds 1m worth of extra services, through more flexible uses of its vehicles. In the past, separate minibuses were operated as school buses, to take elderly people to day centres and for hire to community groups. This has now been rationalised so that the same vehicles are used for these functions and others, reducing non-use time and giving the drivers full-time instead of part-time jobs.
Four central teams are employed to ensure effective co-ordination of vehicles. The council is committed to retaining a cheap fares policy and to supporting nine dial-a-ride vehicles. To improve Devon's ability to receive so-called "green tourists" the council has also paid for the conversion of some buses to take bikes.
Northumberland council is another that has been praised by the RDC for its rural transport initiatives, including support for taxibuses, run by self-employed local drivers. The main operator, Cross Country Connexions, achieves an annual turnover in excess of pounds 150,000, supported by a grant subsidy and concessionary fares for elderly people. The council has agreed to maintain support at existing levels, rejecting an option of reducing by a quarter financial support for pubic transport because of the authority's weak finances.
Elsewhere councils are making cutbacks, particularly to community transport schemes, which could create problems for isolated villages. Murray Seccombe, advice officer for the Community Transport Initiative, says that many authorities are cutting support by between 15 and 20 per cent. "The number of schemes being lost altogether is pretty low," he adds.
Mr Seccombe says there are particular problems in Wales and Scotland, where the new unitary authorities are strapped for cash and are cutting back support for rural and community transport. "Many schemes are getting short-term funding for just three months or so," says Mr Seccombe.
Elsewhere councils are cutting back on concessionary fares, as with Leicestershire, which has introduced a pounds 25 administration charge for each annual pass. There are additional pressures in metropolitan areas on passenger transport executives, particularly related to extra costs arising from rail privatisation.
It is clear from the RDC's guide that subsidies for public transport need not be expensive, and can be cost-effective if they are carefully planned. Public transport is essential to protect villages as communities. Without it, rural settlements will become overwhelmingly the domain of commuters.