Rural bus services at a ‘historic low’, as new report reveals urban locations received two-thirds of flagship government funding

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2023 | 19 July 2023

More than one in four bus routes in county and rural areas have vanished over the last decade with passenger numbers dropping to a ‘historic low’, a new report reveals.

In light of the growing pressures facing county bus networks, CCN engaged SYSTRA in 2023 to undertake a comprehensive review of the English bus services offer and the impact of recent policy developments.

The study, released today, concludes that many services in rural areas were already in state of ‘managed decline’ but the pandemic has accelerated this – with the government’s much-vaunted National Bus Strategy doing little to address these issues.

This is because two-thirds of the government’s £1.1bn to address the decline in buses went to urban areas. These areas benefited from hundreds of millions more in investment despite witnessing the smallest declines in passenger numbers in the lead up the pandemic, the report shows.

Download the report here.

For the first time the report reveals that the 37 largest county and rural authorities – representing almost half of England’s population – submitted Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) bids which collectively totalled £3.6bn, but these councils only received 10% – £363m – of the funding requested, with urban areas receiving £739m.

With the government’s strategy failing to match CCN councils’ ambitions, local authority leaders have said that the government must revisit the funding made available to invest in making buses more punctual, greener and reliable in county areas, as well as making permanent the £2 fare cap to drive up usage.

The report, The State of County Buses: Recovering Services Post-Pandemic reveals:

  • More than one in every four bus services has vanished in county areas over the last decade, as measured by vehicle miles. Between 2010-22, vehicle miles reduced by 26.5% in CCN areas, higher than London and metropolitan borough councils that cover cities and large towns. The pandemic has accelerated this, with vehicle miles dropping by 14.4% in 2021-22 compared to 2019.
  • This decline in bus availability has impacted on passenger numbers. Rural and county areas have witnessed the biggest percentage decline (-44%) with 344 million fewer journeys than a decade ago in 2022 compared to 2010. Passenger numbers were decimated during three national lockdowns in the pandemic year of 2020-21 and have not recovered fully. In 2021-22 passenger numbers in county areas were 35% down on 2019: 216.3m journeys. Compared to a high watermark of 2010, there were 344m fewer journeys taken in 2022 compared to 2010, with journeys now at a historic low.
  • When a route is deemed unviable from a commercial operator, as many rural routes are, local authorities step in and subsidise the service. However, with new analysis revealing councils in rural and county areas have a £420m (50.7%) shortfall in their local transport budgets, the number of council-supported miles in county areas has fallen dramatically by almost 60%; from 140 million miles a year in 2010 to 58 million miles in 2022. The report also shows that commercial operators have increasingly stopped services since the onset of the pandemic. The number of services, as measured in miles, has decreased by 15.6% since 2019, a drop of 51.2m miles.
  • Two years since the government launched its National Bus Strategy, promising a bus ‘revolution’, data in today’s report reveals that the areas with the smallest decline in passenger numbers outside of London received the most out of the £1.1bn BSIP funding. The urban metropolitan council areas that saw a 7.4% decline in passenger numbers to 2019 received £739m, which is 67% of the total funding. The county areas that received no funding from the first round of funding (but £40m in the second round) witnessed the biggest decline in passenger numbers: a drop of 16%.

The government did step in during the pandemic and ensure that more services were not lost by subsidising councils and commercial providers at a time when passengers numbers decreased sharply. It then launched its National Bus Strategy in 2021 which included the requirement for local transport authorities to produce BSIPs in order to access funding.

With the report highlighting that county areas – particularly those who missed out on the first round of BSIP funding – only received a fraction of what they need to deliver their ambitious bus service transformation plans, it recommends that the government launches a further round of BSIP funding and allocates money on par with the level of ambition from councils.

With many councils concerned over the lack of clarity as to why some bids were successful and others were not, the report recommends that any future funding sets out clear criteria on how allocations are decided.

As county and rural areas have seen the sharpest declines over the last decade, the report calls for a ‘County Bus Strategy’ to address the specific issues in those places, as well as a direct revenue stream for buses, and the permanent introduction of £2 fares.

Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst, Transport Spokesperson for the County Councils Network, said:

“Buses have long been a lifeline for many people in rural areas, particularly the elderly and the disadvantaged. But outside of London and the cities, far too many services are at best, patchy, and at worst, non-existent. The pandemic has accelerated the trend of declining usage and journey are now at a historic low.

“We had high hopes for the government’s National Bus Strategy, especially as the support for services during the pandemic was comprehensive. But many county areas were left felt let down with their funding allocations, with the majority of fund being directed to the places that arguably needed the least help.

“As their bids for the funding showed, councils have serious ambitions when it comes to improving and modernising their bus services. But it is increasingly likely that reversing the decline in passengers is a challenge to picked up by a future government, and today’s report sets out a number of recommendations to transform local services. Failure to act will keep buses in county areas in a state of managed decline, with consequences for our residents.”

Notes to editor

  • SYSTRA used the latest Department for Transport (DfT) annual bus statistics and analysed the period covering 2010/11 to 2021/22, comparing the 37 CCN member council areas to Metropolitan and Other Unitary Authorities and London. This included data on passenger numbers and vehicle mileage used in this release. The full analysis can be found between pages 25-33 of the report.
  • The funding gap of £420m in local transport budgets for CCN member councils is derived from new analysis contained in the report by LG Futures. The full analysis can be found page 25 of the report.
  • Details of the analysis of BSIP bids totalling £3.6bn for CCN member councils can be found on page 44 of the report.
  • SYSTRA has analysed BSIP allocations compared to the percentage reduction in bus journeys pre-covid (2010/11-2018/19) and average levels of passenger journeys per head of population pre-covid (2018/19). Authorities were grouped by CCN member councils and Metropolitan and Other Unitary Authorities, with these groups also split by whether they received funding in the first round of BSIP funding. The percentage reduction in bus journeys pre-covid (2010/11-2018/19) was arrived at by grouping the authorities (as described above) and calculating the total reduction in passenger journeys (number) during the period to arrive at the percentage reduction for each group. For passenger numbers per head 2018/19, the average for each of the groups was used. This was then compared to each groups allocations of BSIP funding (both BSIP round one and BSIP+). The analysis is contained on page 45 of the report and the table below shows the findings.


Total BSIP & BSIP+ Allocation[1] Reduction in Passenger Journeys 2011-19 Average Passenger Journeys Per Head 2018/19
£m % % Per Head
CCN Member Councils that received BSIP R1 £322.9 29% -11.7 29.4
CCN Member Councils that did not receive R1 BSIP £40.2 4% -15.6 20.7
Metropolitan & Other Unitary Councils that received BSIP R1 £722.7 66% -7.4 69.6
Metropolitan & Other Unitary Councils that did not receive BSIP R1 £16.4 2% -13.2 42.3
England Total/Average £1,102.3 100% -6.8 72.3