Oxford City Council is writing to the Government and is in discussion with the city’s major employers including Oxford University and the OUH hospital trust over its serious concerns about the planned withdrawal of COVID-related funding support for local bus services.
This is planned at the beginning of April and could lead to the reduction or withdrawal of a number of routes. Government introduced the grant support to help maintain bus operations during the pandemic when passenger numbers – and hence fare income - reduced sharply. While passenger numbers in Oxford were steadily recovering during 2021, the introduction of Plan B in December 2021 set this back. Passenger numbers are currently at only around two thirds of pre-COVID levels.
The Council is urging the Government to delay the pending funding cliff edge and provide more time for a recovery in passenger numbers to underpin the viability of services. Oxford Bus Company has warned that if support is discontinued in April, this will lead to a reduction or withdrawal of a number of routes, which would significantly impact bus users and the city’s major employers.
Oxford has enjoyed a thriving and growing economy and prior to the pandemic there was considerable inward commuting to support the substantial education and health sectors, with high levels of bus usage linked to an extensive network of Park and Ride sites. Historically Oxford has the highest level of bus patronage of any city nationally relative to the size of its population. Cuts in services could slow economic recovery in Oxford, which could have regional and national impacts.
A funding cliff edge forcing bus service providers to make cuts now also runs counter to the work that is ongoing to bring new significant investment in bus operations in Oxford. Over recent months Oxford City Council has worked closely with Oxfordshire County Council to prepare an ambitious Bus Service Improvement Plan with a bid for funding under the Government’s National Bus Strategy, alongside the submission of a separate bid to fund an all-electric bus fleet in Oxford, under the Government’s ZEBRA (Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas) scheme. Both Councils are also committed to bringing forward a Zero Emission Zone and the Connecting Oxford programme that is specifically designed to prioritise bus movement in the city and improve journey times.
An effective bus network is key to tackling congestion and is crucial for reducing carbon emissions in Oxford. The ability for Oxford to meet its targets for tackling the climate emergency and achieving ‘net zero’ carbon and grow in a sustainable manner, would be negatively impacted if bus services are cut.
Oxford City Council and the local bus industry welcomed the support provided to the sector during the pandemic, through the provision of valuable grant funding and through the maintenance of concessionary fare and contract payments at pre-pandemic levels. These have provided a lifeline to the industry at a time of reduced use and increased operating costs.
“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.
“Oxford relies on its buses and bus patronage was returning before Plan B was introduced in December. We need more time to advocate for bus usage and allow for the passenger numbers to rebuild.
“We are writing to the Government asking it to continue all necessary funding to maintain services until the end of March 2023 to give time for wider measures to improve services, cut journey times and reduce emissions to be secured.
“We support the interests of the people of Oxford and our major employers, and we will continue to work with the County Council and bus service providers to tackle their challenges.”
Cllr Tom Hayes, Cabinet Member for Green Transport and Zero Carbon Oxford and Deputy Leader
Oxford City Council has a track record of supporting the city’s bus network and the services it provides. These include calling on the Government to provide support for bus companies so that key workers can get to work at the start of lockdown in 2020 and, in partnership with Oxford Bus Company and Oxfordshire County Council, funding a combined bus and parking season ticket for Park and Rides so that season ticket holders using the Park and Ride services will be able to choose to add parking when buying their bus season ticket.