Hundreds of bus services, including vital links to remote rural areas, are to be scrapped or scaled back because of the squeeze on public spending, The Independent has discovered.
The Government has cut grants to local authorities as well as special support to bus operators. Transport campaigners warned that the crisis would leave small communities stranded, hit the least well-off and undermine efforts to combat global warming.
Fares on those routes that survive the cull could be increased to offset the cuts, while in other areas concessionary fares could be withdrawn.
Services are under huge pressure because non-school budgets to councils, which underwrite thousands of services that are not commercially viable, are being slashed by more than one-quarter over four years.
The amount of money given to bus companies – £436m last year – to offset the cost of diesel is also being reduced by 20 per cent from 2012 at the same time as VAT and fuel duty is increasing. The cutbacks will begin to bite heavily in 2012, but many authorities have started to consider drastic reductions to services.
Worried MPs are to launch a Commons inquiry next month into the number of routes that will be lost and the impact on passengers. Somerset has drawn up proposals to halve the number of subsidised services in the county from 250 to 125. The authority admits the move would "have a very significant impact on rural isolation". More than 70 mainly rural services could be scrapped or reduced in Co Durham. The council plans to cut £1.3m from its £4.5m buses budget.
Nearly 30 services, particularly those in the evenings and on Sundays, are threatened in North Yorkshire, where the council plans to trim £600,000 from transport spending from April. The future of nearly 60 subsidised services in Suffolk is being reviewed. Among the most vulnerable are "market day" services that link villages to nearby towns.
Kent is warning that unprofitable routes among its 200 subsidised services will be axed. Paul Carter, the county council's leader, said: "Some bus services are only used very occasionally by the public and cost us £8 or £10 a head. That's crazy."
Rural, school, Sunday and park-and-ride services are all in danger in Worcestershire, which aims to cut £2.5m from its bus subsidies.
In Cornwall, where £650,000 will be cut from subsidies, there are warnings that 27 rural services will be scrapped, including a route linking the north of the county to Plymouth. Users include students attending university courses.
Dozens of services in Nottingham could be scrapped or reduced, while 43 face the axe in Derbyshire and 21 in Lancashire. Councillors in Hartlepool have agreed plans to save £85,000 a year by ending a hospital bus service.
Meanwhile, concessionary fares are threatened across England. Several authorities are looking at withdrawing the right to free travel in the early mornings and evenings for the elderly and students to save cash.
The Department of Transport will today announce a £560m pot to fund new local transport schemes. However, it will give priority to cycling and pedestrian schemes.
The pressure group, the Campaign for Better Transport, is to launch a "save our buses" publicity drive next month. Sophie Allain, its bus campaigner, said: "People travelling to schools, jobs and services rely on our national network of local buses day in, day out. Cuts will obstruct the delivery of other public services, hold back the economy and magnify social problems.
"Buses might look like an area where quick-fix savings can be made, but the knock-on effects will put a greater strain on the public purse."
Friends of the Earth has protested about the environmental implications. Its transport campaigner, Richard Dyer, said: "An efficient and affordable bus network is essential to help tackle climate change by making it easier for people to get out of their cars and on to less polluting forms of transport."
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