Here is a copy of the letter I have written to Baroness Vere, the Bus Minister.
RE: Future of Bus Services in Worcestershire
I have taken the decision to write to you directly following my appointment as Worcestershire’s Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport in May as I have a duty to the many groups of the travelling public here in Worcestershire, and no group of people are more in need of urgent attention than bus passengers.
To put it frankly, I am utterly ashamed and embarrassed by the standard of bus services available to the people of Worcestershire and across the whole of the country, and I am calling on you to intervene in some concrete ways to provide reassurance and demonstrate to our public that we are on their side when it comes to helping them get to school, to work, and to vital appointments.
To be clear, I do not seek to blame, as I am all too aware that bus passenger demand has fallen by 30%, rising to 50% amongst concessionary passholders to use Worcestershire figures – the situation is similar elsewhere in the country.
I also fully appreciate that, by and large, bus travel demand has been on the overall decline since the 1950s, and that the deregulation of the buses in the 1980s was, in part, a response to the sharp fall in passenger demand in the 1970s. No government of any political persuasion has fixed the bus market, it has for many decades been a situation of managed decline and it does not need to be like this, especially in the context of our climate change objectives.
I accept that Worcestershire, along with other shire authorities, was not successful in its Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) despite its significant ambition, including our commitment to an Enhanced Partnership (EP), which remains our determination.
I was cautiously optimistic to read reports in the press about potential plans to cap fares across England to a maximum of £2 – a figure that’s still around 35p more than bus users in London pay, but it is a start. When can we expect full details of this and other measures? I am sure you will appreciate that officials and operators will need time to adapt to and introduce any new measures.
Replies to letters from your department to our Worcestershire MPs, quite rightly point out the massive support given by the government during the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is widespread recognition and praise for this from the bus operators in particular who are grateful that the support during the pandemic was provided. No government has done more to financially support the buses than this Conservative government since deregulation in 1986.
However, still the numbers fall, the routes threatened with termination, and our public grows increasingly anxious.
I would like you and/or the government to:
- Launch a nationwide, government-funded, advertising campaign to promote travel by bus to assure the public, especially those with concessionary passes, that it is safe to travel following the pandemic. This messaging may help to counteract the effects of pandemic messaging to not use public transport.
- Provide full details of your intended measures to help over the autumn period, such as the rumoured fare cap, as soon as possible.
- Provide capacity and innovation funding to allow County Council authorities to expand Demand Responsive Transport (DRT), and for operator companies to be able to invest in technology to interoperate at both primary and DRT layers.
- Amend the Bus Services Act (2017) to remove the restriction on County Councils to run their own bus services, as well as amending the Act to permit County Councils to deploy full franchising models. At the moment these powers rest only in London and with Metropolitan Mayors.
- Send a DfT official to attend the Bus Travel Task Force for Worcestershire meetings.
I would very much welcome an opportunity to discuss the future of bus travel with you at the Department of Transport, so I can share with you my own ideas and relate the experiences of passengers here in Worcestershire, and help you and your officials to fully understand and appreciate the challenges and opportunities we face, and so we can hear from you more about the way in which government is helping.
The current state of bus services is simply not acceptable, but I know that we have the potential to fix the broken systems and networks through collaboration across central government and local councils like Worcestershire County Council. We are committed to review, enhance and secure the future of our local bus services, but we need your help.
Councillor Mike Rouse