Welwyn Hatfield bus routes slashed amid 77% council funding cuts
PUBLISHED: 11:00 15 August 2018 | UPDATED: 10:14 18 August 2018
Fifteen bus routes serving Welwyn Hatfield have been withdrawn, reduced or privatised in the last two years following county-wide funding cuts.
Acres of newsprint have been devoted recently to problems with the country’s rail network and congested roads.
But over recent years a quiet funding crisis has emerged in one of our most-used forms of transport - buses - and the numbers suggest that the effects are beginning to be felt.
Across Hertfordshire, bus funding plummeted from £8,134,901 in 2010-11, to £1,833,897 in 2018-19.
This amounts to a 77 per cent funding cut county-wide in eight years.
It’s a problem that’s reflected nationwide, says the Campaign for Better Transport in its 2018 report “Buses in Crisis”.
According to a Freedom of Information request made by the campaign, since March 2016, 53 bus routes in Hertfordshire have been reduced, withdrawn or taken on commercially.
When a service is commercialised, the council relinquishes control over levels of service, leaving the companies free to limit or cancel the service.
But the majority of changes has been curtailment or wholesale withdrawal of council-run routes.
Some of these, such as the 331 which disappeared in January 2017, were simply withdrawing duplicate services, or relatively minimal changes, such as the reduction of the Sunday service of the 653, and some routes may have been amended to replace these.
But some reductions are bound to have had a bigger impact, such as the withdrawal of three services between Hatfield Station and Hatfield Business Park, and the removal of journeys from the circular 405 route that covers WGC, Hatfield and Hatfield South.
In total, bus usage in Hertfordshire has reduced by 11 per cent in the last eight years.
The Buses in Crisis report notes that “cuts in bus services add to poverty and social exclusion, and to isolation and loneliness”.
This is also likely to disproportionately impact elderly people and people with disabilities.
Since 2010, roughly one third of Hertfordshire bus journeys have consistently been taken by people who hold old persons’ or disabled persons’ bus passes, and their bus usage has gone down by even more - 15 per cent.
Christine Rogers, who lives in Birchwood, Hatfield, prefers to walk into town because there is a better chance of getting a bus there than if she waits for one of two services, the 300 or the 653, in her area.
The 72-year-old, who doesn’t drive, needs buses to connect her to “everything” - hospital appointments, grocery shopping, visiting family, and more.
Councillor Derrick Ashley, Cabinet Member for Growth, Infrastructure, Planning and the Economy, said that the council has no direct obligation to fund non-commercial buses but will subsidise services “where there is a reasonable demand and is justified on a cost benefit basis,” he told the WHT.
“We have to prioritise expenditure and that has meant some tough decisions in regard to how much we can step in to save or run buses if they are little used and not commercially viable.
“However, we continue to provide significant levels of investment into non-commercial services and work hard with partners such as the local district and borough councils to maximise and build on the support we and others do provide.
“We continue to offer one of the most generous discounts for young people in education with our SaverCard scheme and work hard to secure funding from new developments.
“While it would be nice to have more money to support bus travel that is unlikely to happen as budgets get squeezed further.”
The council is in the process of considering the government’s 2017 Bus Services Act.
In a meeting to discuss it on July 5, council officers felt that some of the suggestions in the Act are similar to what has already been achieved in Hertfordshire, though they are considering taking that forward in the Act’s proposed ‘Enhanced Partnership’ scheme.
However, while the Act focuses largely on solutions through partnerships, it does not actually provide any new funding to help councils subsidise their bus services.
“The best and most reliable way to ensure bus routes are maintained is for people to make greater use of the services available,” said Cllr Ashley.
“I’m afraid in reality it is a case of use it or lose it.”
But Christine pointed out: “The trouble is they want people to use the buses but you hear people moaning that they don’t turn up, or they’re late, and so people just go back to their cars, which doesn’t help those of us who don’t drive.
“It would be a great shame if they reduce the service.”