A £2m boost to bus services and a 10-year road safety strategy have been approved by council leaders.

Durham County Council is to use £2m saved from unused concessionary travel to support bus services for another year.

The money is needed as passenger numbers "remain subdued" in the wake of Covid-19 - 80% to 90% of pre-pandemic levels, and not predicted to recover for several years, and temporary Government support is to stop soon.

Bus services were hit by driver shortages and rising costs, some are "not commercially viable", bus companies had to reduce or cut services, and cuts of "approaching 20%" are expected if the council does not step in.

So the council has decided to use money saved from the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme.

Read more: North East buses leaving passengers stranded and missing appointments

This Government funding would usually reimburse bus companies for lost cash from reduced concessionary fares.

But the number of those passengers was still "depressed" at 65 to 75% pre-pandemic levels with more online shopping by older customers. 

Mark Jackson, head of transport and contract services, said: "In County Durham we could potentially retain up to £2m of funding next financial year which could be used to offset many of the services which may be withdrawn by bus operators as not being commercially viable."

The cabinet approved for the £2m savings to be transferred to the local bus service revenue support budget for 2023 to 2024.

However the meeting heard the Government had advised councils to get concessionary passengers back on the buses, otherwise grant funding would be reduced.

Read more: £2m support to struggling Durham bus services

Cllr Elizabeth Scott, cabinet member for economy and partnerships which covers transport, said they had been able to maintain a viable network for residents.

Now they aimed to use the money to support areas that would otherwise be without a bus services, particularly at key travel times like school and work times, she said.

She told the meeting: "I am acutely aware of the problems that have beset bus services as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Elizabeth Scott. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Elizabeth Scott. Picture: Northern Echo.

"The huge reductions in patronage due to lockdowns and changes in travel demands placed great strain on the sector.

"We know that bus services are a lifeline to our residents in County Durham, helping them to get to and from their places of work, schools, colleges and enabling them to access essential services.

"That's why we have devised this proposal to support bus companies to keep running services which may be at risk of being cut, with little certainty at present over funding future."

Cllr John Shuttleworth, cabinet member for highways and rural communities, said: "I'd also like to endorse giving further consideration to financially supporting bus services in the short, medium and long term so we have the most effective transport options within the resources available."

The Northern Echo: Cllr John Shuttleworth. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr John Shuttleworth. Picture: Northern Echo.

In the same cabinet meeting Mark Jackson, head of transport and contract services, presented a new road safety strategy to reduce casualties in the next 10 years.

The strategy will help coordinate all road safety activities and target speeding, use of phones by drivers, drink and drug driving, and use of seatbelts and restraints, focusing on education, training and publicity following a consultation with 110 responses during the pandemic.

Read more: Devolution - Durham decides to go into region-wide 'LA7' deal

Cllr Scott welcomed the strategy, saying: "Road casualties in County Durham have reduced in recent years, which is to be welcomed.

"However we continue to strive to reduce road casualties even further.

"Every fatality is a tragedy and serious injuries can be life-changing and far-reaching in their consequences for the victims and their families and friends.

"This strategy will provide a foundation for additional road safety programmes to be designed, implemented and evaluated.

"The strategy will also see targeted road safety education, training and campaigns in schools and colleges, also being delivered in communities and neighbourhoods."

Cllr Shuttleworth said: "Road safety is an important topic within rural communities and I welcome the inclusion of rural riding campaigns aimed at leisure bikers and measures to highlight the dangers of illegal and inappropriate speeding in communities.

"And I know that because I see it every day."

Read next:

What do you think of the council's efforts? Why not leave a comment on this story. Go to the top of this story and leave your thoughts. 

If you want to read more great stories, why not subscribe to your Northern Echo for as little as £1.25 a week. Click here.