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Kent Liberal Democrats welcome extra Government Funding for Buses

February 11, 2020 5:23 PM
By Rob Bird, Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group at Kent County Council

The Prime Minister has announced £5 billion of new funding to overhaul bus and cycle links for every region outside London. This should result in well over £100 million being allocated to Kent. It is very welcome but much more will be needed.

Bus services outside London are in crisis, with less and less people taking the bus and consequently more and more people relying upon their cars. The vast majority of bus users are concessionary pass-holders - either young people going to school or college or 'senior citizens' who are eligible to free bus travel.

Transport CostsThis is hardly surprising. Bus services are often considered to be inconvenient, unreliable and, above all, far too expensive. Over the past decade, bus fares have risen by a staggering 62% nationally, even more in many unregulated areas outside London. (In the Capital bus fares are controlled by Transport for London.) By contrast, motoring costs have risen half as fast, by just over 30%.

(Source: www.racfoundation.org/data/cost-of-transport-index).

Outside London bus fares are largely determined by the commercial operators. Kent County Council, Medway Council and the district authorities have very little say in the cost of bus travel across the County. Like many other local authorities, KCC has been forced to cut most subsidised bus routes.

Meanwhile, many of Kent's roads are gridlocked with congestion and choked with toxic air pollution. Five Kent boroughs - Dartford, Gravesham, Maidstone, Tonbridge and Malling, and Swale - and Medway exceed air pollution guidelines set out by the World Health Organisation. According to the WHO, nearly one million Kent & Medway residents are being exposed to "dangerous levels of particles", known as PM2.5.

Electric cars and other low emission vehicles will help but are they will not eliminate air pollution. Nor will they prevent the crippling congestion that makes our daily journeys such a misery. The situation is likely to get worse with many Kent boroughs being pressed by Government to accept significant new housing targets.

Several UK towns and cities are planning or contemplating low emission zones, road tolling or banning vehicles from town centres. London led the way but others such as Bath, Bristol, Brighton, Leeds and Newcastle are following suit. Towns in Kent may soon be forced to consider similar measures.

However, it is clear that we also urgently need a radical new approach to public transport. We need bus services which are convenient, reliable and attractively priced and thus offer a viable and attractive alternative to using the car. We also need clean new buses to replace the dirty old diesel vehicles.

Bus services in northern Europe are generally better and cheaper, especially those in Belgium and The Netherlands. Luxembourg has recently implemented free bus travel. These services are also much better integrated with other forms of public transport such as rail and trams.

Cornwall Council is about to commence a pilot scheme whereby all bus fares will be halved for the next 4 years thanks to a new £24 million Government funding pot. This is a good start but much more is needed throughout the country, and soon.

Kent and Medway need to grasp the opportunity provided by the new Government funding with both hands. We need to put in place attractive and efficient public transport services which allow people to leave their cars at home. We cannot continue to tolerate our towns and residents being choked to death.