Bus funding shake-up bid vetoed

AN ATTEMPT to overhaul the use of bus funding in the West of England has been shot down.

Council leaders had tabled their own proposal at a meeting of the West of England Combined Authority committee in Keynsham Civic Centre on October 6, proposing that leftover funding for buses should be used to put on new buses for communities cut off from key services. But the move was vetoed by Metro Mayor Dan Norris.

The proposal – from the council leaders of Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, and South Gloucestershire – also called for fare reductions for “vulnerable groups,” including care leavers and apprentices, and more funding for enhanced bus services in urban areas which could become commercially viable.

Crucially, it called for council officers to be involved in drawing up funding plans, as well as those of the combined authority.

The proposal was tabled as an amendment to the plan set out by the Metro Mayor’s transport chiefs for how to use the remaining money from the £57.5m “bus service improvement plan” (BSIP) funding which the combined authority received from the government.

“Expert” advice recommended that fares packages and enhanced services would be the most effective way to use remaining funding, with spending it on new bus services “likely to generate good socio-economic impacts” but also likely to require long-term funding and offer “poor to low value for money.”

Mr Norris told the meeting: “That is why I believe it to be so vital we focus on initiatives to grow passenger numbers as the only way to have a long-term sustainable network.”

He added: “The report also outlines an extra £1.1m for supported services. This is money for supported buses only. I am proposing a new formula for choosing where the money is best spent to be informed by a citizens panel.

“I am proposing an additional £0.5m from BSIP for additional new services which could go on to become profitable and would welcome evidence-based suggestions on where they should be.”

But this approach was challenged by the council leaders.

Bath and North East Somerset Council leader Kevin Guy told Mr Norris: “We have the opportunity with the surplus ‘bus service improvement plan’ funds to resolve some of the problems caused by the recent loss of local buses, as well as providing some of the services that are more accessible for some of the youngest and most vulnerable residents in our society.

“My colleagues from South Gloucestershire, Bristol, North Somerset and I have worked together to agree the most valuable ways for our residents and, with their additional funds, to see this happen.”

Mr Guy added that people in Bath and North East Somerset had worked with councillors of all parties and bus industry experts to draw up a plan for restoring buses.

He told Mr Norris: “You’ve had our plan on your desk since July and you’ve had up to £7 million spare to spend specifically on buses. You could fix this tomorrow, but instead of helping them, your office commissions expensive consultation reports designed to demonstrate that residents’ concerns are a low priority.”

He told Mr Norris he would be “abandoning” communities if he did not support the move.

Mr Norris said: “I don’t accept your analysis” and vetoed the amendment.

Immediately before the meeting, Mr Guy, together with Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees and South Gloucestershire Council leader Claire Young, had addressed protesters gathered outside Keynsham Civic Centre who were calling for their buses to be reinstated.

They also signed a petition organised by Bath and North East Somerset councillor Fiona Gourley that has been signed by more than 1,000 people.

The petition states: “There is a bus crisis across rural North East Somerset affecting at least 40,000 people. Many of us feel angry, isolated and frustrated as we struggle to get to education, work, healthcare, shopping, and other vital appointments, because we have lost our regular buses.”

John Wimperis, Local Democracy Reporting Service