Following my recent appointment as Cabinet Member with Responsibility for Highways and Transport for Worcestershire County Council I have been engaged in discussions regarding the future of bus services for our county area.
This work began in earnest, and continues apace as we seek to solve what has become a ‘catch-22 situation‘ – i.e. people say they will use the bus if the service is good, but not enough people are using the bus to provide enough money to be re-invested into services.
Councils don’t tender out contracts for the buses. I’ve seen people online suggesting that the council can replace operators with new ones, or that the council should provide a bus service itself. The council does not currently have the powers to do either of these things – it cannot run a bus service as it is specifically banned from doing so under the Bus Services Act (2017) – you may wish to lobby your MP to change this Act, but it won’t help us right now. The council does not tender out for routes to operators who then bid for them – that’s not how it works. Under the Bus Services Act (2017) the only authorities that can do that are metro mayors, which is why the service in Birmingham is different to the service in Worcester. Again, MPs can amend this legislation, but it won’t help in the short or medium term.
By way of background, you should be aware that demand for bus services has fallen to around 70% of pre-COVID levels, and even lower at 50% for concessionary passholders. This is a trend that is impossible to minimise or dismiss – the cold fact is that fewer people are willing to travel by bus than before the pandemic.
Where have they gone?
I believe the decrease is due to a number of factors and if I were to summarise it I might describe it as a crisis of consumer confidence.
Couple with this is an increase in home-working, and more flexible working patterns.
Despite demand for bus travel being in a heavily reduced state, the government has decided to end the Bus Recovery Grant that was put in place to help operators get through the pandemic. This fund provided over £226.5m of funding to operators across the country, and taken together with other financial support packages there hasn’t been a government since 1986 that has supported the buses more in financial terms.
Why 1986? That’s the year buses were first deregulated.
One of the common requests I get is to simply subsidise the buses with more money – and I am sympathetic to the view that some financial support is likely to be needed, but there is no magic money tree and every penny of money in the council’s coffers is your money and my money as taxpayers.
As I said to the OSPB committee shortly after I came into my role, there is simply no correlation to support the argument that the more money you spend on the buses the more passengers you get. It just isn’t true to say that more subsidy will equal more passengers. You, the reader, need to ask yourself if you want your taxes to be spent on transporting empty or near-empty buses around.
Here is a video copy of the exchange with one of the scrutiny panel members at the 25th May 2022 meeting where the topic of funding came up:
I am keen to outline the steps I am taking with colleagues at the County Council and with our partners and operators, and to ask for your support on some initiatives, as we look ahead to the future of bus travel in Worcestershire.
As you may know from press reporting, the Worcestershire Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) was an ambitious bid to the UK Government that would have enabled in excess of £86m investment into the network in Worcestershire, enabling more people to make a positive choice to take the bus for their travel needs.
As part of the BSIP process the Department for Transport made it clear they want to see Enhanced Partnerships (EP) as defined in the Bus Services Act 2017 as a key feature within how bus services are managed across England.
Outside of London and other metropolitan mayoral authorities, franchising remains an option. This was deployed most recently by the Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham. The West Midlands uses a statutory Enhanced Partnership model.
As a conurbation, the urban West Midlands already benefits from significantly higher demand for bus travel with over 248m passengers in the 2019/20 period. That is why it is a mystery to us why our friend and neighbour’s BSIP was funded to the tune of £87.9m whilst Worcestershire’s plan was awarded £0. We congratulate them on their success, but Worcestershire’s network urgently requires investment to attract passengers. We have asked the DfT for feedback on our bid but we are still waiting.
You may have seen local reporting about Diamond Buses in Redditch in particular where they have outlined the services that are deemed to be at risk because they are not commercially viable. You may also be aware of the situation regarding First Bus and Johnsons bus services. It’s a bleak picture in Worcestershire.
The situation is bleak, and with funding to offset the impact of COVID-19 coming to an end the network is at risk of reverting to a reliance on the commercial viability of routes to ensure their survival, unless alternative funding can be located and unless we can revolutionise how bus travel works.
We are at the point now where nothing short of revolution of innovation in how we use buses will fix this problem.
The availability of bus services is important to the people of Worcestershire, and so we must work together across all layers of government – and as politicians with our public – to do whatever we can to try and safeguard services for our residents.
Worcestershire County Council is doing everything it can to help, including:
- REVIEW: Carrying out a full network review, to be submitted to the Department for Transport by 1 July. Alongside this I am launching a Bus Services Task Force for Worcestershire.
- ENHANCE: Fully committing ourselves to the establishment of an Enhanced Partnership with our operators as defined in the Bus Services Act (2017). Our operators are an essential partner and we cannot establish an Enhanced Partnership without them. They do their level best for the travelling public in Worcestershire every day. We thank them and we look forward to working with them in a new Enhanced Partnership.
- SECURE: Working with new operators into the County such as National Express who have taken over the former 144 service from Bromsgrove to Birmingham. We hope there will be increased opportunities for smaller operators and community transport providers to do more in our county.
- SECURE: Exploring the result of the Bromsgrove Demand Responsive Transport (DRT – what’s that?) trial and examining if this is a viable model for rolling out across Worcestershire. We would need to do this at pace to secure future resiliency to our network.
I need to stress that the buttons we as a County Council can push are limited as the broken component here is one of market fundamentals: demand is either low or not in a form to fit how bus services traditionally work.
However, to summarise:
REVIEW the network, set up a new ENHANCED Partnership, and SECURE the resiliency of the network by looking at demand-responsive solutions and smaller operators where we can.
To mitigate the impact of reduced demand, and whilst the County Council examines whether DRT is the solution for the future of our bus services, I am proposing the establishment of a Bus Travel Task Force for Worcestershire which will be comprised of the County Council, bus operators, passenger groups, councillors and MPs. These will be hosted on a monthly basis in each constituency within Worcestershire. Please look out for details of this in your area on social media, such as my own page on Facebook.
The Task Force is just a start, and there is much working going on behind the scenes in close conjunction with operators and local authority partners. I am fully aware of how people regard local bus services, and how much everyone wants the assurance of knowing there is a bus service even if they don’t use it themselves. I am also acutely aware from my own recent bus travel experiences that some people absolutely depend on bus services for their jobs, and for getting their children to school on commercial services outside of the Home to School Transport Service, which is not currently affected in the same way.
Thank you for taking the time to read this update. I will write another update as soon as I have more information to share.
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