Having looked at the issues surrounding rural broadband provision last time around, this month SBT examines another issue that affects rural SMEs – the state of country roads and public transport.

There’s much to enjoy about living in the countryside – beautiful scenery, fresh air, country pubs… However, many of those who reside in the UK’s rural regions will be sorely familiar with the far from perfect roads and public transport provision. Seemingly, negotiating crumbling and potholed roads and largely slow and inaccessible public transport is part and parcel of country life. Few eyebrows will be raised then by the publication in May of a report by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) that highlights the overwhelming level of dissatisfaction with the state of rural roads and public transport among SMEs.

The key findings revealed that just 4% of rural business owners said public transport and the road network had improved, rising to 8% for less remote rural businesses. This compares to 14% of urban businesses, who reported improvements in these services. Overall, 50% of small businesses believe the quality of the road network and public transport has declined in the past five years. What’s more, these findings come despite significant investments in transport infrastructure over the past decade.

The Roads

Of course, many SMEs are hugely reliant on the road network, with the FSB report finding 89% of small businesses considered it of high value, and those in more rural and remote areas value access to the network even more thanks the general lack of access to public transport. The main causes of dissatisfaction reported by small businesses were congestion, poorly maintained local roads, and a lack of regional strategic planning. Again, as individual issues, this is unlikely to surprise, yet all of these combine to impact heavily on those small businesses which are dependent on the road network.

This is certainly rather poor when one considers the oft-quoted figures that illustrate the value of smaller businesses to the UK economy. A quick re-cap: small businesses make up 99.3% of all businesses in the UK; they contribute 51% to GDP and employ 60% of the private sector workforce. Furthermore, in rural areas, smaller businesses provide a significant proportion of employment opportunities and are often said to drive economic growth across the country. The contribution of the rural economy represents around 16% of the UK’s total economic output, and is valued at £210 billion per annum.

So what’s causing these problems? A report by the Local Government Association (LGA) entitled Better Roads for England, points to inadequacies in the current road funding and maintenance system. The report suggests that these arise as a consequence of the government treating the Strategic Road Network (the main motorways and trunk roads) in isolation from the rest of the road network, and through having created overly complex funding – including differing legal frameworks, assessment criteria, and timescales – for local authorities around the country. It’s also suggested that gaps in council powers hamper attempts to manage transport as a whole. The current system is neither locally devolved, nor wholly top-down, but rather a combination of the two, and this only serves to complicate matters.

This convoluted approach also creates confusion among businesses, as to which governmental body has responsibility for the upkeep and delivery of transport infrastructure. In the FSB report just over half of small business owners said they knew who was responsible for the upgrade or maintenance of the roads they used, making it difficult to know who to report issues to, alongside causing a general nescience around the subject.

It would seem then that the current system needs urgent attention if things are to improve. The FSB propose that current and future devolution deals should be used as an opportunity for new combined authorities to commit to greater investment in local transport infrastructure. FSB’s Mike Cherry said: “The current devolution agenda in England presents a real opportunity to make a positive difference to rural communities. Small businesses want to see more resources earmarked for rural transport. This will help support rural small businesses as well as the UK tourism industry, which are both disproportionately affected when local bus networks and roads are left to deteriorate.”

This view is shared by the Local Government Association who agree that ‘changes are required to enable local authorities to prioritise and fund the long-term improvements needed’. In order for things to move forward, the LGA recommend changes including: connecting up budgets and objectives; linking maintenance and improvement budgets; establishing continuity; providing flexibility; and trusting local accountability.

Let us not forget that part of the problem is caused by business traffic itself. Figures from the Department of Transport show that LGV use on rural ‘A’ and minor rural roads both rose (by 9.1% and 10.5% respectively) between December 2014 and December 2015. In the same period, HGV use on rural ‘A’ roads also increased, by 3.3% (unfortunately the data for minor rural roads was not published). Overall use of rural ‘A’ roads and minor rural roads both increased, with minor rural road traffic rising the most of any road type, by 5.2%. Many country roads were not originally – and in many cases still aren’t – designed to deal with high traffic volumes and regular use by larger, heavier vehicles.

Public Transport

Outside of the big towns and cities, public transport is, comparatively, incredibly limited and a far less feasible means for work-related travel. A survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of vehicle leasing company, Lex Autolease last year found that more than one in five SMEs said their business locations are poorly served by public transport links. If forced to rely on public transport for day-to-day business travel, 44% said they would be less efficient and 31% said it would cost them more money. Simon Barter, head of SME Direct at Lex Autolease commented: “While public transport provides a suitable alternative to driving for London-based firms who benefit from the country’s most sophisticated transport network, the majority of UK small businesses depend on their vehicles.”

Focusing on the buses for a moment, continuing budget cuts are severely affecting the services in rural areas, many of which have already seen reductions or cancellations. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, public funding for bus services throughout the UK has been reduced each year, for the best part of the last 10 years. Research indicates that the funding cut in the South East in 2015-16 is to total 13.93% the highest of any UK region, while the local authority cuts levied by East Sussex County Council and West Sussex County Council were 43.2% and 20.68% respectively. This all adds to the increasingly bleak picture for the already uncertain future of the bus services in these areas.

Speaking to the BBC in February, Martin Abrams, from the Campaign for Better Transport, likened the ongoing cuts to the buses to the infamous cuts (akin to a hatchet job some might say) on the railways fifty years ago: “Up and down the country utterly devastating cuts are now being inflicted on our vital bus services on a par with the swingeing and misguided cuts the government and Dr Beeching made to our rail network which decimated services back in the 1960s.”

In response, Transport Minister, Andrew Jones said: “The government protected around £250m of funding for bus services in England, provided through the Bus Service Operators Grant, as part of last year’s spending review.”

He added: “Ministers have also provided £7.6m in support for 37 local transport schemes in rural areas, while more than 300 charities and community groups across England would benefit from new minibuses through a £25m fund. We are also developing measures in the upcoming Buses Bill so local authorities can deliver improved bus services.”

It would seem that the railways are not facing quite the same peril as bus services thanks to the £9 billion allocated for upgrading the network across England and Wales between 2014 and 2019. Nevertheless, things are far from rosy what with ongoing issues surrounding above-inflation fare increases, overcrowding, and efficiency.

Furthermore, disputes such as that surrounding Southern Rail recently, which has led to strikes and widespread cancellations, alongside disruptions caused by general problems such as signal failures have served to highlight just how erratic this form of public transport can be. Unfortunately these occurrences are all too common with thousands being affected and countless work hours lost each year as a result – let’s hope we see the benefit of that £9 billion.

Yet again we are seeing evidence of rural communities being left behind their urban cousins in terms of infrastructure, ultimately serving to inhibit rural productivity, profitability and growth. While the issues we’ve looked at may not have any easy solutions, it would appear that a simplification of certain processes and a little more thought applied to others could at least provide a decent foundation on which to build future improvements.

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