Further cuts to vital bus services threaten to have a devastating impact on England's rural communities, the Rural Services Network has warned.
Bus services are being hit especially hard by local authority budget savings as a consequence of the massive on-going funding cuts imposed by the government, and in some areas the cuts have reached critical levels, says the Network.
Local authorities are proposing to cut over £20m in spending on supported bus services this year – twice the reduction in 2013, according to campaigners.
The Local Government Association says that affected authorities likely to be worst hit include the counties of Cumbria, Dorset, Essex, North Yorkshire, Worcestershire, and Nottinghamshire.
A Save Our Buses campaign backed by the Network and other organisations is calling for an urgent review into funding for bus services ahead of the government's budget on 19 March.
Rural Services Network Chairman Councillor Cecilia Motley said: “Buses play a vital role in rural communities – especially for local residents who do not have a car or other available transport.
“The historic unfair funding of rural councils by government means that the impact of the recent and future budget cuts on rural councils is felt far greater than in other areas as services started from a lower starting point.
"We recognise the need for austerity measures but government cuts are in grave danger of going too far – leaving many rural local authorities with no choice but to reduce funding for bus services.”
Mrs Motley added: “Rather than imposing draconian and short-sighted cuts, the government should be investing in the bus sector for the long term.
“The impact of any cutbacks is likely to be greatest in shire counties and there is likely to be a significant adverse impact on the operation of services in rural areas.
“Once bus route are lost they are often gone forever. It can be very difficult – sometimes impossible – to restore routes in the future even if finances improve.”
Bus companies are supporting the Network's view.
John Birtwistle, Projects Director UK Bus for First Group, said: "Whilst these supported services make up a small proportion of the English bus network overall, rural communities are highly reliant on such services."
Mr Birtwistle added: "Bus operators are working hand in hand with local authorities to minimise the impact of these funding cuts and commend this approach to all local authorities."
Access to important services – and access to employments and training opportunities -on which rural residents depend could also be put in great jeopardy as routes are lost or curtailed, says the Network.
The warning comes amid fears that elderly and disabled people face losing bus services as government cutbacks leave councils unable to fund free travel.
Councils have a statutory duty to provide free off-peak travel for elderly and disabled residents through the national concessionary fares scheme.
But government funding for the scheme has reduced by 39% during the life of this Parliament, according to the Local Government Association.
Free passes but no buses looks to be a future reality.