Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Stoke-on-Trent City Council (Bus 11)



  1.1  Stoke-on-Trent City Council is a Unitary Authority (1997) with co-ordination responsibilities for public transport and welcomes the decision to undertake an inquiry into the bus industry.

  1.2  Stoke-on-Trent is ranked 26th most deprived Local Authority District in England (1998 Index of Local Deprivation) and 3rd most deprived in the West Midlands. The severe economic problems currently facing the City have been recognised at the national level through an initiative by the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, "The Byers Initiative", which seeks to comprehensively address the difficulties facing North Staffordshire.

  1.3  The City is characterised by a collection of "urban villages" where housing and industry are interspersed. As the economy has declined local jobs are disappearing and the ability of people, particularly in the more deprived communities, to access new employment is limited by parochial attitudes and low aspirations, but particularly the linear nature of the City and its Victorian street pattern which both restricts and increases the cost of movement. This situation is making certain areas of the City less attractive for local businesses to prosper impacting adversely on job prospects and recruitment.

  1.4  Large areas of severe dereliction (including prominent, empty and underused buildings, vacant brownfield sites) and a generally harsh and oppressive environment not only reduce the quality of life for the communities living within this urban core, but exacerbate the poor image of the City and act as a major disincentive to investment. Living conditions are further constrained by poor housing (17.9 per cent of dwellings are classified as unfit), low wages, low income and poor health (36.8 per cent of the City's adult population is claiming some sort of benefit and in some wards eg Brookhouse, this increases to 60 per cent). Public transport is, therefore, of considerable importance to the City in terms of regeneration and overcoming social exclusion.


  2.1  There are a number of contributory factors relating to the provision of bus services in urban areas generally, and specifically in Stoke-on-Trent:

    —  Some bus operators are reducing services, particularly the less profitable or marginal ones in order to assist with the process of staff retention and recruitment;

    —  Some operators are starting to refocus resources on main road services with frequent headways, thereby missing estates and communities which are off the line of major routes.

  2.2  The design of the present network of public transport services within the City is dictated by the following principal factors:

    —  The need to service a number of small town centres each with their own local estates;

    —  Major health and Education sites remote from the town centres;

    —  The shape of the City which is linear, with a series of interchanges of varying standard and quality;

    —  The former industrial heritage of the City which created area culs-de-sac because of mine and pottery workings, and water courses;

    —  The recent trend of bus operators to reduce services, combined with a contracting of the passenger transport industry generally, leading to excluded communities in inner estate areas and areas remote from the main routes.

  This results in the following transportation deficiencies:

    —  Bus services which do not connect readily with other services to and from the major health and education sites;

    —  The concentration of new employment sites in out-of-town locations where more construction space is available;

    —  Difficulty in making certain cross-city, cross-town and cross-conurbation journeys because of the difficulty of understanding the network;

    —  Poor links between communities and local facilities such as schools and leisure centres;

    —  Low frequencies caused by the difficulty of serving areas which are divorced from main routes of the City.

  These issues have, therefore created particular difficulties for some communities, and specifically in the areas of:

    —  Access to new employment opportunities;

    —  Access to health facilities which are multi-centred and spread across the City;

    —  Access to education facilities and training centres;

    —  Access for people unable to reach or use conventional public transport services.

  2.3  These transport challenges contribute to:

    —  Socially excluded and disadvantaged groups without access to education, health, leisure services, commercial and employment opportunities;

    —  Inequalities in terms of access to health and social care services;

    —  Higher absenteeism from schools;

    —  Low participation in lifelong learning;

    —  A culture of low self-esteem and low aspirations;

    —  Low staying-on rates;

    —  Low inward investment;

    —  A less mobile workforce at increasing risk of exclusion from the labour market.

  All of these effects are reflected in the City's deprivation statistics.

  The present community transport scheme is fully committed and cannot accommodate additional capacity.

  2.4  These deficiencies have led the City Council to prioritise a series of actions within the Local Transport Plan aimed at increasing the market share of public transport, increasing modal shift and securing the network.


  3.1  The City Council has been very successful in securing a series of Quality Corridors in the City with the principal operator—First—, and patronage has grown on bus services on these corridors by as much as 30 per cent. A huge amount of work has been done in installing special kerbs at bus stops, erecting new shelters and information panels, negotiating a better contract with a shelter provider and introducing bus priorities including vehicle detection systems. A significant part of the network is now served by modern, low-floor accessible buses. However, there is no long-term commitment on the part of the bus operators to:

    —  Continue with the routes as they stand in terms of route or frequency;

    —  Cross-subsidise the increases in patronage on specific services to help secure other services for a longer period;

    —  Use increases in profit for delivery of, for example, more or better priority measures.

  In the worst case the operator pulled out of a Quality Partnership route in the City with 56 days warning, and in every subsequent case the major bus company has only been able to acquire buses which are low-floor but are second-hand.

  3.2  In summary, Quality Partnerships have generally worked on the main corridor routes, but this has not delivered consequent beneficial results over the whole network.


  4.1  The City Council's aspiration is that the resourcing of Quality routes would lead to the delivery of a long-term stable network. In general terms the Quality routes have remained fairly stable, but it is the marginal services on the remainder of the network which have been subject to a rapid rate of change.

  4.2  In fact, a recent set of service withdrawals on 3 March 2002 has seen a total of nearly 50,000 journeys per year withdrawn from a series of routes including main links to Festival Park, which is a major shopping destination, and Chell which is a deprived inner City area. In addition, although outside the City boundary, some communities which are closely linked to the City have been abandoned by the main bus operator, leaving this Council and neighbouring Staffordshire County Council to find alternatives. If only five people per journey used the affected withdrawn journeys, an equivalent of almost the entire population of Stoke-on-Trent (255,000) will have been inconvenienced by the withdrawals. Another effect is a severe reduction in facility for poorer communities on the edge of the City—a trend which is continuing and causing concern in the fight against social exclusion.

  4.3  There are, on average in the City, about four sets of service changes per year, each of which contains an element of service withdrawal. Another personal example within Stoke-on-Trent journey to work area is the series of routes which link Stoke Town Centre with a nearby market town (Cheadle). In just four years, bus services connecting these two points have experienced 30 changes. On each of these occasions, users have had to adapt their lifestyle to fit the new schedules, and suffer some level of inconvenience in the process.

  4.4  The resultant unfortunate message to users and non-users of public transport is that the industry is continually contracting and constantly changing its services, and thus is seen as an unattractive alternative to other modes which are far more stable by comparison.

  4.5  It is this factor of service unreliability and short-term commitment which is, in my professional view, the most damaging to the Government's 10 year targets and the ability of local Councils to help deliver them.


  5.1  The case for more bus priorities is clear. Well-designed bus priority measures improve inter-stop times and can deliver improved reliability.

  5.2  However, there is little point in investing heavily in priorities when the fare collection systems of so many bus companies are still old-fashioned. Even modern ticket machines require many key depressions by the driver to issue a simple ticket, and the giving of change uses up any gain from bus priorities as the bus is stuck at the stop while the customer transactions are completed.

  5.3  Furthermore, many big bus groups move vehicles around the country but rarely fit local destination display equipment. The effect of this is longer dwell times at stops as drivers answer customer queries about the bus route.

  5.4  Smartcard investment and quality regulation would answer these deficiencies and make bus priorities more effective.


  6.1  In order to meet its aspirations in the ten-year plan, the Government has targeted resources into:

    —  Capital works (through Local Transport Plans);

    —  Challenge Competitions (such as Urban Bus Challenge)—a mixture of capital and revenue;

    —  Rural Bus Services—a mixture of revenue (Bus Grant) and capital and revenue (Challenge Competitions).

  6.2  These processes have tended to allow the introduction of capital works and experimental or new services but have not addressed the fundamental problem of keeping in place a base network which will contribute to the economic and social well-being of the affected communities. In London, where such a network is secured, patronage is growing and there is stability, integration and service improvement.

  6.3  The other main area of funding is from a Council's SSA, a proportion of which is used for revenue subsidy. However, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, in common with many other local authorities has to annually make reductions in its expenditure in order to meet the stringent targets set by the SSA process. In fact we can only afford to spend about 0.002 per cent of the Council budget on bus service subsidy. The continuing effect of service withdrawals means that we cannot keep up with the removal of services from our communities, and we now face a situation where many parts of the City have no evening or Sunday bus service, or have a very poor level of service because we cannot resource the necessary improvements. Often, the only alternative available to local Councils is to not award service tenders, meaning that we are also contributing to the decline in services.

  6.4  However, the definition of "commercial" by the bus industry remains shrouded in commercially confidential mystery. Our local First subsidiary is one of the top 10 earners in the bus industry, yet still makes regular withdrawals of service, in some cases of journeys which are well used. Areas in the City which have been abandoned by this large bus group have passed under tender to other bus companies who then report successful increases in patronage and a developing market for bus travel.

  6.5  Stoke-on-Trent City Council has, however, succeeded in imaginatively using capital funding through the Local Transport Plan to purchase its own low-floor accessible buses for use on wholly-subsidised bus routes in the City. This has enabled the Council to provide high quality vehicles to areas which otherwise would have no bus service at all, and at a reduced tender cost. However, we are constrained in expanding this process by the need to contain revenue costs and to avoid direct competition with commercial bus routes.

  6.6  My view is that additional revenue funding to Local Authorities is needed to target service provision so that a stable, integrated network is maintained which will meet the long-term needs of our citizens.

7.1  External effects on the industry—Costs

  7.1.1  Cost pressures on the bus industry have been particularly severe in recent years as the combined effects of fuel prices, the contracting insurance markets, and the results of years of reducing staff conditions have all begun to bite. These factors have generally resulted in a declining market with fewer suppliers, and have meant that operators have raised their tender prices to local authorities. In many cases, the increases for tendered journeys has been many more times the rate of inflation—our worst example being a contract for two journeys which increased last year by 600 per cent.

  7.1.2  These effects are difficult to predict but stress again the necessity for additional revenue funding to meet the price rises being experienced.

7.2  External effects on the industry—Market-led decisions

  7.2.1  The other unknown factor in service delivery is the effect of decisions of the big bus groups. If, for example, a decision is taken centrally to reduce, say, the number of vehicle engineering spares, the effect on service delivery can be marked and negative, as vehicles cannot be found to maintain service. Decisions about rates of return, centralisation of management functions, and deployment of vehicles can all have a negative result on reliability and quality of service delivery. Such decisions are unpredictable to local authorities, but the effect is felt locally.


  8.1  Although the City Council has written service quality requirements into its Conditions of Contract, and demanded that operators who win certain types of service contract put their drivers through a recognised customer care programme, it is not straightforward for local authorities such as ours to influence commercial matters such as:

    —  Driver behaviour and standards;

    —  Vehicle design;

    —  Vehicle quality;

    —  Service design;

    —  Service reliability.

  8.2  To do so would require a considerable effort in terms of monitoring and follow up which is beyond the ability of most local authorities to deliver, and is not within our powers or duties to deliver. However, poor attention to these matters by commercial operators results in a poor presentation of service and can contribute to a feeling of lack of care by providers.

  8.3  It is my view that some form of quality regulation is required for operators to maintain standards. A process similar to the PTEs' rail-based SQUIRE and TIRE regimes would allow an impartial monitoring of standards without the very severe financial penalties imposed by, for example, the Traffic Commissioners.


  In my view, the following matters need to be considered:

    —  Increased revenue funding to local authorities is required to combat the effects of declining bus service provision and maintain an integrated network;

    —  Quality partnerships only work for main corridor routes and quality regulation is needed for all services;

    —  Bus priority measures are important but there needs to be a consequent investment in on-vehicle systems and quality measures to reduce at-stop dwell times;

    —  Buses are an essential tool in reducing social exclusion but networks are insufficiently stable to produce long-term benefits.


  10.1  As a way of truly testing the Partnerships v Contracts argument—a trial area is needed to establish: "Would there be improvements or not?"

Paul Lucas

Passenger Transport Manager

April 2002

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