National Park Bus services are vital for sustainability and equality of opportunity

  • Contributor information: CNP

Northern Dalesman bus at Ribblehead

Bus services should play a vital role in sustainability and equal access in National Parks but serious funding cuts are putting them at risk, Colin Speakman explains more.

During the appalling experience of Covid, many of us shared a vision for a green future. We dreamed of a kinder, gentler world, one in which access to green spaces – including our magnificent National Parks – would be available to all, to help rebuild and restore our physical and mental health after the pandemic.

But sadly, that dream has not been realised. People have not returned to green modes of travel, to walking and cycling, rather to their cars, seen during the pandemic as a “safe haven” away from contact with others.

Traffic in rural England has rapidly increased beyond pre-Covid levels. But public transport has not, in part because of the fact that work patterns have now changed, perhaps permanently, as many people now work from home for part of a week and only go to the office on maybe two or three days. Bus usage is now down to about 80% of pre-Covid levels. However there has been a rise in weekend leisure use, with many bus operators reporting more passengers travelling to coast and countryside destinations.

This is impacting on our National Parks. In the Yorkshire Dales we had some of the worst traffic jams ever in honeypot areas, with massive verge and roadside parking in popular destinations being witnessed, as people seek access to precious green space.

Not good news for the environment. In, of all places, our National Parks, road traffic is now the biggest single cause of greenhouse gases, wiping out efforts for precious carbon capture gains from tree planting or peatland restoration.

Nor is it good news for those of us who, by age, ability or even choice don’t have ownership or use of a car, as many rural bus services have suffered from a combination of rising fuel costs and driver shortages, leading to constant service cuts, cancellations and unreliability, with constantly changing timetables. This has meant ever reducing travel choices for many people without cars.

It now seems as if two of the most high profile and successful weekend integrated travel networks in our Yorkshire National Parks – DalesBus and Moorsbus – are so starved of cash that in 2023 significant service cuts may have to be made.  Despite amazing voluntary fund-raising efforts, including concerts, raffles, jam making and donations on the buses, rising contract prices and minimal local authority support are now creating a crisis.

In the case both of the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors National Parks, the myth that buses are only used by tiny minority of elderly people has become intrenched.  As a result both National Park Authorities regard public transport as one of their lowest priorities, and therefore refuse to fund them. The Yorkshire Dales NPA give Dales & Bowland Community Interest Company who manage the widely acclaimed integrated DalesBus travel network, a token £5,000 per year (unchanged for several years) towards a comprehensive network which requires upwards of £120,000 a year to maintain. The North York Moors National Park Authority however give Moorsbus nothing at all. Meanwhile North Yorkshire County Council refuse to support any Sunday bus services at all. They also have a policy (almost certainly illegally but not tested in the courts) not to recognise senior passes on several Dalesbus bus services because they are deemed “leisure” services. It seems uniquely in North Yorkshire as a senior citizen you can have free travel on a bus to go shopping, visit a friend, but not to go for a walk in a National Park.

Neither the Park Authorities nor North Yorkshire County Council give any support to marketing the services even where, in the Dales, this includes the County Council’s own financially supported weekday rural bus services.

As a result, the highly regarded Moorsbus network is facing a 25% cut in the period it can operate, compared with pre-Covid levels. We will only have Moorsbus in three peak months of the year in 2023; in July, August and September. In the Yorkshire Dales, the Channel Four featured 830 Northern Dalesman service to Swaledale may be partially or even wholly withdrawn, severing links from Lancaster, Darlington and Middlesbrough, and also via the iconic Settle-Carlisle railway from Leeds, Bradford and Keighley.

We should remind ourselves why our National Parks were established, following the great 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. It was to both protect our finest areas of countryside, but also to make them green lungs for our cities, fully accessible to all. This visionary legislation is as relevant for our difficult times as it was almost 75 years ago; perhaps even more so in terms of growing inequalities between Britain’s generations and Regions.

Around 30% of the population living in the centres or suburbs of our Northern towns and cities do not have access to a car – almost a third of the population. Major catchment conurbations served by Moorsbus and DalesBus include Middlesbrough, Leeds, Bradford and York. Our services give opportunity not just to the less-well off and disadvantaged, but a rapidly growing market of many well-educated young people, students, post-graduates, or young professionals in their 20s and 30s living in our cities, who have chosen a green lifestyle that includes the freedom not to own a car. These are the very people we should be encouraging to come to the National Park by sustainable modes of travel. Many of them are future members of National Park Societies and Campaign for National Parks.

Increasing numbers of such young people are now using Dalesbus and Moorsbus  The popular Dalesbus 874 service between Leeds and Buckden has been full to standing on many days this winter. But even this service still needs public financial support because of the economics of bus operation, including rising fuel costs and lower than actual cost reimbursement to bus companies by local authorities for free senior pass free travel. Fully “economic” fares would price off the very people – those on low or modest incomes – who can most benefit from access to our National Parks.

Motorists expect and enjoy good, expensively maintained roads, large car parks, visitor centres, toilets. Yet the visitors who are not congesting our roads and polluting our environment, or are too poor to own a car, or indeed have a disability that makes them physically unable to drive, are too often ignored or seen as “low priority”. The refusal of our two Park Authorities to support green access to their National Parks, by giving both Moorsbus and DalesBus the essential funding support they need, is indeed shameful.

In the Moors and the Dales the car remains King. Providing a decent integrated public transport network and effective traffic management is the only way to achieve a modal switch to green travel (and there is huge synergy between walking and public transport) which Climate Emergency strategies now need to deliver as a matter of urgency.

The Government has just granted our ten National Parks in England a generous and badly needed boost of £440,000 to meet cost of living increase.

If we could get just 5% of this new money – say £20k – diverted to supporting the equivalent of Moorsbus or DalesBus in our National Parks, some if not all these services, including the iconic bus to Swaledale, could be safeguarded for 2023.

Or are our National Parks purely for car users?

Colin Speakman

Independent member of Campaign for National Parks Council

Vice President Friends of the Dales

Trustees North Yorkshire Moors Association