The Citizens Advice Bureau has found that many low income families are spending as much as 25% of their income on owning and running a car...not through choice but necessity. South Devon is one of the most expensive areas of the country with high housing costs and low earnings often with unreliable seasonal employment. It has one of the highest insolvency rates in the country and a high percentage of retired people who are more likely to be dependent on public transport
The more rural an area the greater number of cars or vans per household. South Hams for example has 12,081 more cars than households but this only underlines the relative transport poverty of the 'have nots'. 14% of rural households in Devon have no access to a car- 55,000 people. Without transport these people are unable to access hospitals, employment, education or even benefits.
Under the comprehensive spending review the Government grant to Devon County council was cut by £54m in 2011/12. Like all councils they have a number of statutory commitments and after a public consultation around the priorities for spending, support for public transport came out as a relatively low priority. People who don't ever need to use public transport don't often see it as a priority.
As a result Devon County Council reduced the public transport support budget by £1.35m out of a total spend on public transport of £7.75m.
But even more worrying is the 'perfect storm' brewing for the future with ever increasing costs and reducing revenue.
From April 2012 there will be a 20% reduction in the Bus Service Operator Grants which will increase operator costs by 1.5-2%. If this were passed on to passengers then, as fares in Devon are already amongst the highest in the country, this could result in a further abandonment of bus transport.
The reduction in operator reimbursement for pensioners' bus passes is also having a major effect on operator income and net costs. In Devon 56% of all bus journeys after 9.30 are by concessionary travel scheme passengers. A reduction of reimbursement to operators of 15% translates into a 4-5% loss of income but for more rural operators could be as much as 30%.
Add to this the costs of administering the scheme; Devon is having to spend £12m on this...twice as much as it is having to spend on supporting bus services to ensure people can travel in the first place. Devon County Council estimates that it has been underfunded by approximately £5m in the current year on this scheme alone. Many of my constituents wonder whether the ability of some people to travel free is more important than the ability to travel at all for many people of all ages.
On top of reducing subsidies comes the blow of passenger transport inflation which outstrips RPI as a result of increased insurance premiums, increasing staff costs as a result of legislation on part time workers, increased training requirements and more expensive vehicles not to mention the runaway costs of fuel.
70 bus routes have been affected in Devon and one in particular highlights a number of the issues around rural transport, Route 111.
The 111 was a lifeline in my Constituency, running from Dartmouth via Totnes Station to Torbay taking in both the main shopping area and taking passengers to the door of the hospital. It ran via several local villages and was a regular reliable service that also allowed parents to exercise choice over their children's school. The loss of the 111 has been devastating. Last week I met Mrs Freda Morgan who despite being in her eighties made the trip from Dartmouth to visit her 91 year old sister in hospital. Ten hours after leaving home and having had only one hour with her sister she arrived home completely exhausted.
The 111 was in some ways a victim of its own success and highlights that this is not just an issue of cuts to rural bus subsidies but also the result of the perverse impact of the way competition can be applied to these routes since the 1985 Transport Act (deregulation). Other companies are able to cherry pick commercial sections of the route leaving less profitable sections stranded.
76% of bus journeys in Devon are on commercial services and Devon County council is unable to consult on commercial changes. There have recently been around 200-300 service changes each year with only 56 days notice required to do so. This leaves little time for those affected to make alternative plans.
If a skeleton service no longer allows you to access employment, medical appointments or your school, then you are effectively excluded from taking your full place in society.
Of course there are many community bus services in Devon; a great tribute to their volunteers and commitment and Devon has led the way in demand led bus services such as fare car but it would be a mistake to think that demand led transport reduces costs, these are typically even more expensive.
So what then is the solution?
Doing nothing leaves the 14 percent of rural transport poor at the roadside and is not an option. As public consultation exercises have shown, they are not prioritised by those who have cars.
What do my constituents say?
I have been surprised by the number of pass holders in Devon who tell me that they would rather have to pay a small amount per journey or even an annual administration fee than have reduced services.
Experts in local transport tell me that an annual fee of around £30 would cover the administration costs and still represent outstanding value for money for free travel for a whole year.
Others ask me to question why foreign vehicles can use our motorways for free when we pay so much to use their own? Why not have a system as in Switzerland where vehicles have to display a motorway pass. For British nationals that would be our tax disc and we could ask all foreign trucks and cars to pay a smaller amount for a disc to use our motorways...again outstanding value for money to them and at no cost to UK taxpayers.
Others have suggested a higher VED for high emission vehicles to subsidise public transport.
Perhaps we should give councils powers to require out of town supermarket users to pay to park. This could be reimbursed in store if necessary but the levy paid to subsidise local rural services if appropriate for that area. This would also redress the imbalance affecting our rural high streets where on street parking charges drive ever more customers to out of town retailers.
I hope the Transport Minister, Norman Baker, will also look again at the unforeseen consequences of deregulation and examine the role that this has had in devastating rural services. I would also like to see travel cards for fare paying customers that allow for use on all routes so that customers can benefit from all services where more than one company operate along a route. I would also like to see 'red diesel' permitted on community buses.
Perhaps even a commitment from bus companies to make their timetables fit in with other forms of public transport like train services so that passengers don't alight from the train to see their connecting bus heading off into the sunset.
Doing nothing should not be an option.
You can click here to watch the debate in Westminster.