An update on Wiltshire's future public transport plan
Wiltshire spending 5.1 million per annum on bus support.
* Wanted to reduce spend to half of that in the 2017/18 and following financial years.
* Public Consultation from 1.2016 to early 4.2016 brought 11,000 + replies.
* Officers and third party discussions realise significant problems if huge bus cuts.
* Cabinet decides to cut only 500k in the 2017/18 financial year.
* Note that budget for 2018/19 is not set - this is a one year settlement.
* Note that councillors are up for re-election in May 2017 for a four year period.
* Note that the Bus Services Bill has been in its report stage in The Lords and is getting clearer.
Around a half of the bus routes in Wiltshire are subsidised, as are certain journeys or parts of the route on almost all the commercial routes too. Wiltshire Council wanted to halve their expenditure in this area, but the strength of the response to the consultation has helped them understand just how important buses are to those who have little choice but to use them in their daily lives, and to the businesses and communities served. A reduction in subsidy under the current system would probably results in massive service cuts, making the council very unpopular amongst voters, add costs to other budgets (council, other public sector and individual), and adversely effect the economy of the area. It would be risky to cut bus subsidy with the assumption that private operators would fill the biggest gaps commercially, and cutting off route parts and connecting services would threaten the commercial network too.
The decision to spend 4.6 million in 2017/18 (versus 5.1 million this year and a previously budgeted and stated maximum of 2.6 million) is welcome, but it may well turn out to be just a 'stay of execution' as by this time next year when the next decision is to be made, councillors will be early in their terms and may be better placed to take longer term decisions that result in short term pain and unpopularity.
There are still savings of 500k to be made in the 2017/18 year. Statements that 97% of bus journeys are safe suggest that subsidy cuts (and service loss) if the job is done by simply removing support from some services / journeys will result in 330,000 journeys being lost at a saving of around 1.33 each. The statement that journey with a high support cost (over 3.50 per journey) will get a very careful look is not unexpected, but the savings on first calculation do not appear to purely target high cost per passenger supported services. This is not a surprise, as the high cost services are the rural ones which can make a disproportionate difference to the individuals using them, and also effect the rural wards which many cabinet members represent at council.
Current law (England outside London) is based around competitive commercial services where the role of the local transport authority is to analyse the (commercial) services provided and work out where the gaps are. They are not obliged to fill those gaps. They are not allowed to subsidise something which competes with a commercial service, nor specify commercial routes or arrangements.
Commercial operators are allowed to run buses when and where they choose. Services are registered and can be changed at 56 days notice, including withdrawn. Operators are allowed to run commercial services at times to maximise their profits (if they're a company, that's a duty to their shareholders) and to compete with other operators on the same route. They are not allowed to directly set up joint arrangement with other operators as this could be considered to be a monopolistic cartel against the interest of other operators wishing to enter the market, and against customers and transport authority. Third parties (such as the local transport authority) can set up / co-ordinate 'quality bus' schemes by mutual consent which allows for some joint working and marketing - common quality, companys accepting each other's tickets, etc.
With knowledge of this background to bus regulation and issues highlighted in around 30 years of operation, the new Bus Services Bill is looking to address the issues of the old system for the future benefit of all. However, change may not be welcomed on all fronts as operations are well settled into the current framework and designed to operate best for their masters within that framework; the balance between public service, profit and other elements comes down to the individual company, or indeed the individual business unit within a company.
Solution - 2017/18 year
Continue to support most services
Increase marketing to encourage more bus users, leading to greater farebox receipts and reduced subsidy need
Trim back a small proportion of services. We've been quoted £3.50 as a figure above which services will be reviewed, and also told (but only as informal heresay so far) that evening and Sunday bus services will NOT be subject to automatic removal; such would be a clean and easy saving of the 500k, but at a terrible cost to the evening and Sunday economies. The subsidy for these services brings more value (and more public support) per pound spent than other categories reviewed, but because they're small elements anyway you'll always get the bulk of (more expensive per head) daytime / weekday users 'gunning for them'.
With the gentle reduction of passenger numbers, it's possible that borderline commercial routes will cease to be commercial in the future, and the issue of subsidy will need to be considered - this may happen in 2017/18. Although Council officers can sometimes see the warning signs of a service about to be pulled, such removals tend to require a "sticking plaster" solution to a hole left in the network, with few suppliers able to move in, so resulting in something expensive and disjointed.
Bus use has gently reduced over a number of years, and it's unlikely that the marketing measure above and the trimming back suggested will provide the foundations for a long term solution unless investment were to be increased in future years. We consider that marketing will be helpful but is unlikely on its own to enable every service to be self supporting. As marketing will reflect to the whole network and not just supported journeys / sections / routes, it's possible that it will bring significantly better results (profits?) on some commercial operations, but it can't pull each supported element into credit.
SUGGESTION ... for the 2017/18 year, the community works as closely with bus opertors and the council as they will allow in a positive way. Some of the suggestions made during the consultation and thereafter (under option 24/7 for example) may be partially implementable to move towards a better joined up network, and the marketing proposed if effective is exactly the sort of thing proposed, all be it against a less fertile background than it might be under changed legislation.
Solution - longer term
The Bus Services Bill has three significant amnedments currently going through. Whether they form a part of the final bill, we'll have to see.
a) Talking buses - a requirement (in some / all cases?) for new vehicles to announce each stop as they approach it to help the visually impaired. Great, but what does it do to the costs?
b) The Competition and Mergers Commission becomes a statutory consultee (and further involved down the line??) on bus franchising. At this stage, there is an early concern that this may result in insufficient local community / council influence, with large conglomorates holding a very strong hand. There is even a suggestion that franchising might only be available as a last resort (never the less, a good 'stick' to have; under whatever framework it's done, mutual agreement and partnership is to be preferred)
c) The requirement for Secretary of State to make an order allowing franchising where there's no elected mayor is removed; that allows our larger unitary councils such as Wiltshire to proceed to use the Bus Services Bill options without getting a specific signoff from 'Whitehall'.
The 2017/18 settlement has bought Wiltshire Council, its communities and bus operators an extra year to move forward to a financially sustainable and effective public transport network for the future. As is often the case, the gap between campaigners and council is far less than might meet the eye, and it's very much seen in the operator's positive view too.
We have been provided with an opening which may allow us - all - to come up with something right for the next decade. It involves the bus operators, other public transport operators, the community and the council. A great deal of the bas work done by Wilthshire Council, by the Option 24/7 team, and by others forms an excellent base - for example the pilot area work. This is something that should be vigorously progressed from early 2017.
As the long term future shape of bus services in Wiltshire will be decided by Wiltshire Council after the May 2017 election, we should ask / invite all candidates standing for election to present their views / position / proposals to their electorate, and tell us what their party's stance will be should they be in power or hold the balance of power.
Some new links of interest
Letter from Philip Whitehead
Council Cabinet brieifing for October 2016
update inc. wilts council website quote and that web site
Current transport status - update for Houes of Lord visit
Cornwall presentation to their community rail conference
Public transport's both road and rail!
* Electrification of the East - West line through Chippenham proceeds; new trains and relief of current trains should come in the next couple of years.
* New trains are on order for the East - West line though Westbury; anticipate major changes in about 2 years.
* The East - West line though Salisbury is up for re-franchise based on current service levels. First and Stagecoach are the two remaining bidders
* The regional service from Portsmouth to Cardiff has trains running at or above capacity. Additional carriages are to be allocated to the line once thay become available as a result of Thames Valley electrification (this comment includes more local services via Salisbury and Trowbridge to Bath and Bristol)
* The 2014 - 2016 trial service on the North - South "TransWilts" line is to continue as a permanent service within the GWR franchise - i.e. until 2019
* Heart of Wessex services, Westbury to Weymouth, run all day, every day of the week, all year from December (new Winter Sunday morning trains)
TransWilts merits special comment as it's 'Wiltshire's own service". The Swindon to Westbury section was 'designated' by the Rail Minister on 29th September, and that provides some limited extra community input via the TransWilts CRP, and an additional ability to the supporting stakeholders such as the train operators to work with the community to tune elements of the service to better meet local needs. A package of measures along these lines - to help the line (the fastest growing in the country) to continue to grow and serve its community - is on the drawing board and will be announce in the new year; plans are to have a special event on Saturday 21st January and we suggest you keep your diary free for that day.
Page content prepared by - Graham Ellis - 26th October 2016