Funding support for local bus services in Oxford faces a “cliff edge” that could lead to further services being axed and a “slow economic recovery” from the pandemic, the city council has warned the government.
The council’s statement claims that the planned withdrawal of pandemic-related Bus Recovery Grant funding, which is due to expire on April 5, may force service providers to cut a large number of available routes, and “would significantly impact bus users and the city’s major employers”.
It also suggested the termination of grant support would undercut efforts to reduce congestion and carbon emissions in Oxford, such as plans to invest in an all-electric fleet of buses under the government’s ZEBRA scheme.
Writing to the government, the council wants “all necessary” financial assistance to be maintained until the end of March 2023, to allow for the recovery of passenger numbers hit by the introduction of Plan B measures in December, which are currently thought to be at only two-thirds of their pre-COVID levels.
Oxford Bus Company has said the funding shortfall may require cuts of up to 30%. This would be on top of previous changes to services in January, which entailed the closure of a number of routes, brought on by a “perfect storm” of the pandemic and difficulties in the recruitment of drivers.
In a letter to the Treasury, Liz Leffman, leader of Oxfordshire County Council, called the scale of potential cuts “unprecedented”, and suggested that not only all of Oxford’s park and ride services, but more than 40 routes, including key services to university hospitals, could also be under threat.
“Local authorities, including Oxfordshire County Council, have worked closely with bus operators over the past two years to support them through the pandemic, in the expectation that the government’s National Bus Strategy would bring forward improvements”, she claimed. “It would be devastating for this hard work to be undone through the removal of support before we hear the outcome of our Bus Service Improvement Plan and future funding for bus services”.
The county council is in the process of a bid to secure £56 million from the government’s £3bn National Bus Strategy (‘Bus Back Better’) funding pot, as part of its Bus Service Improvement plan. The Observer had previously reported, however, that available funding has shrunk to £1.4bn, with the amount of funding bids submitted totalling more than £7bn.
Councillor Tom Hayes, Deputy Leader of Oxford Council and Cabinet Member for Green Transport said: “Bus travel is a crucially important way of getting around the city, and the City Council and Oxford’s major employers are very concerned about dangers posed to the bus network by a cliff edge withdrawal of Government support”.
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