When Staffordshire council announced on April 1 that they were cutting the local Sunday bus service – a lifeline for many of its regular passengers – people thought it was a bad joke.
The route was a thread connecting the local community, linking Stafford and Cannock in the West Midlands. But it was no April Fool’s Day prank.
Like so many decisions taken by local authorities in the era of austerity, it made sense on paper. Staffordshire County Council said it could no longer keep the buses running because numbers had dropped so much, the subsidies needed to make up for the loss in fares were “simply not sustainable”.
The local bus operator, Arriva Midlands, said at the time that “cuts to funding” were forcing them to withdraw the subsidised service. According to county council cabinet member Mark Deaville, “some journeys are costing taxpayers £10 a time”.
On its own, of course, the cutting of this one bus route is not worthy of a national news report. It is, at best, a local story affecting a relatively small number of people. But it is in paying closer attention to thousands of small financial decisions like this that we see the reality of government-led austerity, and the way it is quietly changing Britain.
In our HuffPost UK series, What It’s Like To Lose, we are exploring how these changes at a local level link up to paint a national portrait of austerity – from the closures of community libraries, or the centralisation of medical services or job centres, to the disappearance of affordable leisure centres or local post offices. As local authorities find themselves picking off the “low-hanging fruit” of services that have seen their use go down in recent years, what does it mean if you are one of the people for whom that still really matters?
When we visited Cannock on a grey December day, standing at a bus shelter was 80-year-old Jocie Lucas, taking refuge from the driving rain. For her, the cut was a blow to her sense of freedom. “I have a free bus pass, but I’m so confused these days as to when the buses are running that I hardly use it now,” she said. “I’ve lost some of that independence to travel where and when I want, and now I have to rely on lifts from family.”
What has happened to the residents of Cannock is happening across the country. Buses remain by far the country’s most popular form of public transport – 4.65 billion journeys are made each year, two-and-a-half times more than on the train.
But despite their levels of use, almost 17,000 bus routes have disappeared over five years across the UK, according to the Traffic Commissioner’s annual report. Tightened council budgets have made services that were under-used, but previously considered essential, vulnerable to cuts. The Campaign for Better Transport says there has been a £182m – or 45% – cut in local authority-supported bus services since 2010.
In Staffordshire, like in many councils across the UK, the changes came following a funding consultation last year. Tanya Dance, who runs the Copper Kettle cafe overlooking Cannock’s bus depot, was particularly hard hit by the decision – she had become a bus ticket vendor just months before the Sunday services were cancelled.
“There used to be queues of passengers on a Sunday, which was one on my busiest days,” she said. “A lot of the old folk with their free bus passes would only venture out on a Sunday and spend time shopping and in my cafe.”
Dance said the move has seen her takings halve in the last eight months. And the disruption, she thinks, has mainly affected her elderly customers.
For them, the service was vital. It was the only opportunity many of them had to go out and socialise, or visit church, she said. “To stop all buses on a Sunday seems way too drastic. Cannock isn’t exactly isolated but its pretty rural and buses are a lifeline for many around here,” she said.
Jocie Lucas echoes this, saying she used to enjoy travelling into town on a Sunday. “Now and I’m in other people’s hands, so that takes away some of the fun.”
“Sunday is the only day I can go shopping because of work in the week, and neither of us drive or can afford a cab. So we walk it to town and back now”
But it’s not just the elderly who have had to adjust. Teenagers Alicia Slyde and Dean Mayo, both from a suburb of Cannock, said they now have to walk 45 minutes to get to town. “Sunday is the only day I can go shopping because of work commitments in the week and neither of us drive or can afford a cab, so we walk it to town and back now,” Mayo said. “It’s hard work carrying all the shopping home but we have no choice. “
Slyde added: “The bus service around here is dreadful during the week and then non-existent on a Sunday. Even getting to college every day is hit-and-miss as far as buses go. But stopping the Sunday service just doesn’t make sense. That’s the one day people get to themselves and want to travel.”
More than 2,000 people have signed a petition started by local campaigner Lee Murphy, asking the council to reverse its decision. Some of those who have signed mentioned nurses and staff working at local care homes needing to get to work.
Murphy told HuffPost UK that a regular user of one of the Cannock services relies on it to reach his brother, who is disabled. “He still requires the same care on Sundays, but how is he able to travel to him? Both Cannock and Stafford hospitals are cut off – neither train station are close enough,” the campaigner said.
“In addition to this, users paying as much as £520 a year for a Cannock/Stafford region bus pass will receive less value for money. This is unfair to hard-working commuters who deserve to use their pass for evenings and weekends too.”
Kevin Chapman, a spokesman for the Better Transport campaign, said the vast majority of the lost routes serve rural communities, like Cannock. “When the local bus service goes this often results in people in these areas becoming more isolated,” he said. “We are faced with a nasty cocktail of reduced funding for councils and operators cutting routes, while in the middle of it all we have vulnerable people who may rely on the bus to get out and about.”
But as always, decisions to cut services are complex. Staffordshire County Councillor Mark Deaville said the money saved had been directed to the services people use the most. “Our changes affect only four subsidised Sunday services from the Cannock depot, and the decision to stop all of its other Sunday bus journeys is a commercial decision for Arriva and not the county council.”
In Staffordshire, one local MP is the defence secretary and former government chief whip, Gavin Williamson, who said he is extremely concerned about the removal of the Cannock service, which he described as a “lifeline”.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, the senior Tory said it is “deeply damaging for the elderly who may rely on the buses to get them to the shops or to and from church on a Sunday,” he said. “It is important we do all we can to fight these cuts and I hope Arriva reconsider their decision.”
Teenage commuter Esme Walker, agrees. She said living in Cannock already felt “like being out in the sticks”, and losing the Sunday bus service has isolated her further.
“Me and my friends looked forward to catching a bus on Sunday and spending the day in Birmingham or Stafford,” she said. “It was really nice because we’d often meet elderly people from the town on the bus who seemed just as bored as us and we’d end up travelling together.
“I think the buses helped bring local people together in that way.”
In a new series, HuffPost UK is examining how shrinking local budgets are affecting people’s daily lives. These are stories of what it’s like to lose, in a society that is quietly changing. If you have a story to tell, email email@example.com.