Rural communities are a small proportion of our society, with only 17% of people living in rural areas in the UK, including myself. However isolation and loneliness are real issues for many in these communities. The pandemic has highlighted this isolation further and our post-Covid recovery offers a clear opportunity to tackle these issues. The case for reliable and sustainable rural bus services is clearer than ever.
A current lack of reliable and sustainable bus services has reinforced the physical and mental isolation that many face in rural communities, even before the pandemic. According to Campaign for Better Transport in February 2020, over 3,000 bus routes, largely in rural areas have been cut since 2009 as a result of the austerity-regime forced upon our local authorities. Bus services have seen local authorities cut funding by 43% between 2009/10-2018/19 across England. Also DEfRA reports that the current minimum travel time to a hospital in rural areas is on average over an hour, compared to half an hour for urban areas.
These cuts have heavily impacted rural communities who have small populations and long-distances between towns and villages, making them all but attractive to private bus operators.
This reduction in bus routes makes rural communities highly inaccessible and segregated. This forces many young people with skills to leave our rural areas and seek employment elsewhere, where they have greater access to public services, education and jobs, through public transport. This also compounds the already highly exclusive nature of our rural communities, maintaining their white, elderly and middle-class character and reducing rural communities simply to homes for those who can afford it. I was very privileged to live in a middle class family, who could drive me to places and allow me to meet friends, particularly when I couldn’t learn to drive due to my physical disabilities. So many young people in rural areas aren’t as privileged and a lack of buses not only hinders them from seeing friends but also their access to jobs, local higher education and public services.
Without reliable public transport and especially bus services, rural areas are also becoming inaccessible from urban communities. Many low-income families and those from disadvantaged backgrounds face have no means of accessing our wonderful countryside and nature. Only 2.4% of those from BAME backgrounds live in rural areas but there is a demand for BAME urban residents to access the countryside. One group exemplifying this is the Hundred Black Men Walking for Health group from Sheffield.
Whilst only 10% of land in England is publicly accessible; the lack of rural bus services is reinforcing this systemic inequality in access to the countryside and nature.
A study by Natural England last year highlighted the major divide in people’s access to nature as a result of their income. The People and Nature Survey saw ‘44 per cent of respondents in households earning £15,000 or less visited a natural space in the last 14 days, compared to 70 per cent of those earning £50,000 or above.’
We need rural communities that are diverse, accessible and sustainable. This includes giving everyone the opportunity to learn about nature and immerse themselves in the countryside. The countryside is for all.
The current lack of rural buses is severely hindering the ability for rural communities to become flourishing places that are diverse, accessible and sustainable. Instead many of them have become new exclusive suburbs, marginalised, and stagnant. They cannot simply be places for homes and leisure, they need to be places with a sustainable economy supporting the national effort to confront the climate crisis. There is so much potential for rural communities, but they need the funding and the tools to truly utilise their resources, from land to skills, in achieving this. Providing funding and legally-binding targets for public transport in rural communities could start to unleash this potential.
Oxfordshire County Council has already sought to restore former routes through gaining £588,000 from central government, allowing them to fund three rural routes for twelve months. Other rural communities and councils should also have this opportunity.
The National Bus Strategy being drawn up by the government must recognise that rural bus services are vital. We need to see a strategy that offers rural communities; increased usage of bus services, a clear route to zero emission buses, better integration of buses with other transport, and growth in use of technology to improve services, as the February 2020 Campaign for Better Transport report stated.
The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England has started a petition to call upon the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, to ‘invest in a reliable bus service for every community, every town and every village in England’.
Do consider signing the petition.
Through this we can begin to create rural communities that are truly economically relevant and places of work as much as homes and leisure. These communities can become diverse, accessible and sustainable.