Where are Labour’s solutions to bus service cuts?

Attacking the government is easy, and it’s the Opposition’s job. But when it comes to cuts in bus services, the two shadows – Hilary Benn and Gordon Marsden – have plenty of criticism, but no solutions. And, says our Westminster man, it is unlikely that alternatives will be on Labour’s agenda..

A Freedom of Information request by shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (CLG), Hilary Benn, has revealed that taxpayer funding of local bus services has fallen by a quarter since 2010.

The highest cuts include a 55% drop in Northamptonshire, 50% in Suffolk and 40% in Hertfordshire. Naturally, Hilary Benn has used this data to attack the government and highlight the impact that the withdrawal of subsidised bus services can have, especially for the elderly and those in rural areas. The shadow Buses Minister, Gordon Marsden, got in on the act, saying: “Tory cuts on this scale damage the rural economy and well as individuals’ chances.”

Attacking the government is, of course, the job of the Opposition, so I have no problem with Messrs Benn and Marsden doing their best to highlight what, in their eyes, will be the damaging implications of the government’s cuts to local government budgets.

My difficulty with their remarks is that they fail to offer any solutions. They did not say the government was wrong to cut local government funding as a measure to reduce the deficit.

Nor did they say which other local authority services should be cut to preserve bus services. Nor did they acknowledge that local authorities are free to increase council tax above the limit set by the government if they want to raise more money to preserve local services. Strange, isn’t it, that local authorities are so reluctant to use this power? I wonder what local voters would say if they were asked to vote on whether council tax should be increased to preserve bus services?

Ed Miliband has made clear that, if Labour forms the next government, we will see the biggest devolution of power from Whitehall to local authorities – so come on Hilary and Gordon, would you support local authorities holding local referenda to test the local electorate’s views on this issue? Or would you seek to persuade Ed Balls that local authority budgets should be increased to restore local bus services?

All opposition parties are very good at criticising the polices and track record of the government without offering too much by way of alternatives. It’s one of the reasons why I believe the electorate has become so cynical about politics and politicians.

But this does highlight the problem Labour has: its job is to criticise the government, but it knows that should it win the next election it will almost certainly have to impose a further round of major cuts to public spending, doubtless including local authority spending – and with that, more subsidised bus services will be under threat.

At that point Hilary and Gordon, if, come May 2015, you find yourselves, respectively, as the CLG Secretary of State and Buses Minister your words may come back to haunt you. You are within your rights to highlight the impact that cuts to local authority budgets are having, including the impact on subsidised bus services.

But Gordon Marsden’s boss, shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh, has been silent on the matter. I understand Ed Balls has been giving a clear steer that there will be no loosening of the purse strings if he is the next Chancellor. That’s doubtless why she recently remarked that Labour’s transport policies will be developed “in the context of austerity.”

It seems she is more prudent in her public utterances than Hilary Benn and Gordon Marsden.