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Thousands of bus routes in England are under threat because councils have said they cannot afford to pay for them.

They blamed an “unsustainable” funding gap of £652m in the free bus pass scheme, which local authorities have been forced to fill.

Councils subsidise 44% of English bus routes but they warned that, without more funding, these could be cut.

The government said it provides £250m a year to support bus routes and £1bn for free bus passes.

Councils are required by law to reimburse bus operators for carrying passengers who hold a free off-peak bus pass, such as the over-65s and disabled people.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils, said that the gap between government funding for the free bus pass scheme and the actual costs has soared from £200m in 2016 to £652m in 2017/18.

That increasingly means they have less money to spend on supporting rural bus services, as well as other optional forms of subsidy such as free peak-time travel for pass holders, post-16 school transport or support for young people’s travel.

‘Protect vital routes’

The LGA is calling for the government to return to fully funding the costs of the free bus pass scheme in the Spending Review this year.

Councillor Martin Tett, the LGA’s transport spokesman, said: “Properly funding the national free bus pass scheme is essential if the government wants councils to be able to maintain our essential bus services, reduce congestion and protect vital routes.

“If this is not addressed in the Spending Review it could lead to older people having a free bus pass but no bus to travel on.”

The LGA said more than 3,000 routes have already been withdrawn, altered or reduced since 2010/11.

A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “It is for councils to decide which bus operations to support in their areas, but we help to subsidise costs through around £250m worth of investment every year.”

She said that £42m of this sum goes to local authorities and an additional £1bn is used to fund free bus passes.

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