Government warned not to overlook county areas in bus strategy, as new report lays bare the scale of decline in rural public transport

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2020 | 10 December 2020

MPs and council leaders have urged the government to not overlook counties in its forthcoming bus investment strategy, as a new report lays bare the scale of decline in public transport in rural and remote areas.

The new report from the County Councils Network (CCN) and the County All-Party Parliamentary Group finds that services in counties are operating at minimum levels following years of funding reductions. The report’s analysis reveals there were 97 million fewer bus journeys in 2019 across 36 counties compared to a decade ago due to a £348m funding gap.

Download the report here.

County MPs and council leaders warn that only a fair share of resource will bridge this funding shortfall: they have called for the gap to be filled and for further long-term investment into the 2020s from the government’s £4bn National Buses Strategy, due to be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Councils subsidise bus routes that are not commercially viable for operators but have found it hard to maintain subsidies due to cuts in funding. Between 2009 and 2019, council and central government funding for bus routes declined by £233m – 30% – in the 36 county areas. At the same time, costs in that period are estimated to have increased by £115m due to population increases. This creates a funding gap of £348m.

The number of passenger journeys in counties dropped by 12.1% from 2009 to 2019, double the England average of 6.4%. In 2019, just 16% of England’s entire bus journeys were in counties – despite those 36 areas containing half of the country’s population.  The number of passenger journeys in counties is nearly three times lower per person compared to the national average.

County MPs and county leaders say that bus services in rural and remote areas are a lifeline for residents, particularly the elderly and disadvantaged and they argue that a decent transport network is necessary for education and employment – as eight of the ten least socially mobile areas in England are in counties.

The report also contains a regional analysis, which finds:

  • County regions across the country have seen sharp declines in funding. County areas in the North West saw a decline of -39.5% in funding for bus routes, whilst counties in the South West saw a decline of -36.9%, followed by county areas in the East Midlands (-32.5%) and the West Midlands (-31.2%).
  • Passenger numbers dropped significantly in county regions across the country compared to a decade ago. In 2019, annual journeys in North West counties declined by 25.1m (-29.7%) and the East Midlands 21.1m (-17.9%). Over the same period, counties in the West Midlands saw a reduction of 17m (-26.6%), and counties in the North East a reduction of 10.9m (-15.1%).
  • Almost three quarters (74%) of county residents live in areas over 30 minutes’ journey to a hospital by public transport – compared to 60% of those in urban areas. Over a quarter (26%) of county households live further than 30 minutes away from a further education college, whereas the figure is one in ten in cities and urban areas. Over one in five residents (21.5%) live 30 minutes from a town centre, compared to one in ten in urban locations.

County leaders and MPs say that bus route changes and closures have had a ‘devastating’ impact on those who are elderly or disadvantaged, alongside adversely impacting the employment and health prospects of people, including care workers who rely on public transport to get to the frontline.

They fear that unless the situation is reversed, the already smaller-number of county bus routes will cease further in the coming decade, leaving more people reliant on their own transport.

They have called on the government’s strategy to provide a fair share of investment into the areas that have seen the largest decline in funding and have communities most reliant on buses, alongside devolved powers to improve services and infrastructure.

Peter Aldous MP, chairman of the County All-Party Parliamentary Group, said:

“The inquiry that informed this report showed the devastating impact on rural and remote communities of services that councils could no longer afford to subsidise. Whilst passenger numbers have declined across England, services in counties are operating at minimum levels and any reduction in services hits those who are elderly and disadvantaged the hardest.

“A reduction in passenger numbers does not equate to a reduction in demand, and it is clear that there has been an increase in people who need these lifeline services but have seen their bus routes fade away over the last decade. With much focus on public transport in cities, we fear the needs of county and rural areas could be ignored.”

Cllr Barry Lewis, economic growth spokesperson for the County Councils Network said:

“To achieve the twin aims of levelling-up and economic recovery from Coronavirus, county areas need good public transport links: for their elderly, for their disadvantaged residents, and for the employment prospects of young people particularly. This will be so crucial to the period of recovery we must all work hard at.

“This is why the government’s National Bus Strategy must not overlook county areas.”

Notes to editor

Regional breakdowns

Region Funding decrease over ten years from 2009 to 2019 (after adjusted for inflation) Annual journeys decrease (2019 compared to 2009)
North West counties £22.6m (-39.5%) 25.1m (-29.7%)
South West counties £40.4m (-36.9%) 7.7m (-8.7%)
East Midlands counties £36.5m (-32.5%) 21.1m (-17.9%)
West Midlands counties £20.2m (-31.2%) 17m (-26.6%)
North East counties £16.6m (-30.9% 10.9m (-15.1%)
Yorkshire and the Humber counties £8m (-27.1%) 6.4m (-26.4%)
East of England counties £40.3m (-23%) 7.2m (-4.1%)
South East counties £48m (-22.9%) 2.2m (-1.2%)
All 36 counites £232.8m (-30.1%) 97.6m (-12.1%)
England n/a 295.1m (-6.4%)


  • CCN commissioned LG Futures to carry out a financial analysis of bus expenditure using government data from 2009 to 2019. The council and government funding for bus services and routes which make up the regionalised figures in this press release and the report comprise of the Bus Services Operators Grant, local authorities’ net expenditure on buses, and local authorities’ net expenditure on concessionary travel, and adjusted for inflation. These are taken from Department for Transport (DfT) publications.
  • Cost pressures for bus service were assumed by LG Futures to increase in line with each authority’s projected population increases since 2009. Costs for concessionary travel were assumed to increase in line with the projected number of residents aged 65 and over.
  • The passenger journey figures for 2009-2019 were taken from DfT datasets.