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

Memorandum by Devon County Council (Bus 47)


  This memorandum of evidence from Devon County Council, submitted at the Committee's invitation, focuses on the bus industry and bus services in the rural context. It addresses four aspects of the bus industry which the Transport Sub-Committee has identified that it wishes to explore as part of its Inquiry:

    —  Subsidies in the United Kingdom bus industry, and the result of bus challenge initiatives in rural and urban communities.

    —  The importance of bus priority measures and their enforcement.

    —  Regulation of the bus industry.

    —  The contribution of bus services to reducing social exclusion.


  Devon is the largest local authority in the South West Region: it is over 100 miles by road from Start Point in the South Hams to Ilfracombe in North Devon. The major centre of population is the Cathedral City of Exeter (population 110,000) with other towns, Exmouth (32,400), Newton Abbot (23,600) and Barnstaple (20,800), acting as focal points for a large rural hinterland. Unlike many other shire counties, Devon has no medium sized towns with populations in the 50,000 to 100,000 range. The country is characterised by small market and coastal towns which play a key role in serving the surrounding villages and rural communities. About 75 per cent of the county's 424 Parishes have a population of less than 1,000.

  The county has an extensive network of local bus services, about 95 per cent of which are provided by two major operators: Stagecoach and First Group. The map below shows the strategic bus network; a map of all bus services in the county can also be made available to the Committee.

  The Devon "Quality of Life" survey undertaken in 1998, on the Council's behalf by MORI, identified more frequent and cheaper public transport as the top priority for people in Devon. The next highest priorities were reductions in the level of crime and the provision of more affordable housing for local people.

  The County Council has identified improvements to bus services and infrastructure as part of its statutory five year Local Transport Plan programme. Government has also designated it as one of the 17 Centres of Excellence for Integrated Transport Planning, partly through its good practice in rural public transport. The Authority has also been a finalist in the Bus Industry Awards and recently presented its own "Good Bus Driver Award" to four Devon bus drivers.


2.1  Rural Bus Subsidy Grant

  Most of Devon's rural bus services are financially supported through the Government's Rural Bus Subsidy Grant and the County Council's revenue budget. Allocations of Grant funding, which began in 1998, are based on the proportion of the population in settlements of 3,000 or less. In the first tranche of funding, Devon County Council received £1.41 million per year for the period 1998-99 to 2000-01. The allocations in the second tranche were £1.799 millon for 2001-02, £2,059 millon for 2002-03 and an indicative allocation of £2.102 millon for 2003-04. The County Council's revenue bus service support budget for transport for 2001-02 was £1.623millon.

  These subsidies have enabled the County Council to put in place new and improved bus services which link Devon's market and coastal towns, and surrounding rural areas, with Exeter, Barnstaple and Newton Abbot. The funding has also contributed towards:

    —  Services linking communities in Devon with towns in the adjacent counties of Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset (funded jointly with those local authorities).

    —  Increasing the fleet of higher specification, more accessible, vehicles which meet the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) specifications and Disability Discrimination Act requirements.

    —  Improving timetable and information services.

    —  Experimenting with "flexible" bus services and shared taxis (in partnership with the Countryside Agency).

    —  Fares experiments to increase patronage.

  The County Council has carefully targeted the available financial support for rural bus services to ensure that increases in patronage represent value for money. The table below shows the growth in passenger numbers on Rural Bus Subsidy Grant funded services. The current total annual number of passenger trips on all of Devon's supported buses is 3,584,000.

DateAdditional annual passengernumbers*
October 1999442,000
October 2000704,000
March 2002840,000

*Based on patronage of Rural Bus Subsidy Grant services compared with baseline patronage of the same group of services (where they existed) in September 1998.

  The Council has calculated that an increase in the Rural Bus Subsidy Grant to about £6 millon per annum would:

    —  Provide all communities of 1,000 or more with a daily bus service for shopping/work.

    —  Enable vehicle standards to be improved.

    —  Establish more frequent services to market and coastal towns operated to a uniform and predictable standard.

    —  Support fares experiments.

  Bus operators have experienced increased operating costs over the last four years as a result of varying fuel costs, higher insurance premiums, increases in drivers' pay, training costs and improved vehicle standards. This has led to the withdrawal of bus services that are no longer commercially viable and higher service contract prices. Tender prices have increased by between 20 per cent and 100 per cent. As a result the County Council had to take some difficult decisions in reviewing supported services with consequent service reductions and withdrawals.


  The County Council's research has shown that patronage increases on enhanced rural bus services are not immediate and that it takes some time for passenger numbers to grow. More certainty about longer term Rural Bus Subsidy Grant funding levels would enable the Authority to plan ahead with more confidence. Government should link funding for rural bus services to local authorities' five year Local Transport Plans.


  There is a need for Government to permit local authorities to use the Rural Bus Subsidy Grant more flexibly: to overtly support fare schemes that encourage regular bus travel and bus services which link urban and rural areas. Local authorities would also find it helpful to have clear confirmation from Government that the purchase of vehicles, for use by bus operators, is a legitimate use of Local Transport Plan capital funding. Vehicles provided in this way could help to support bus services which are on the margins of commercial viability.


  The County Council's experience is that some bus operators do not have well defined processes for measuring and analysing numbers of passengers, journeys and fares. Whilst the provisions of the Transport Act 2000 empower local authorities to request such information from bus operators in respect of commercial bus services the date is not always reliable or of good quality.

2.2  Rural Bus Challenge

  The Government's funding through the Rural Bus Challenge has enabled the County Council to establish two projects:

    "Life in the Bus Lane"—A partnership between Devon County Council, First Red Bus and North Devon College. Smartcards issued to scheme members qualify them for free or half price bus travel to and from college, half price bus travel after 6pm, at weekends and during college holidays and discounts from local businesses. The project has attracted three allocations of Challenge funding—£640,000 for 2000-01, £300,000 for 2001-92 and £373,000 for 2002-03.

    "Devon Fare Cars"—£472,000 has been awarded for three years for this scheme, piloted in the Honiton area, which offers people in rural parishes free membership of a Fare Car Travel Club. It enables customers to pre-book a door-to-door service to and from Honiton at a special rate and with opportunities to connect to other services. The Fare Car concept will be extended to eight targeted areas which at present are not served by daily bus services.


  The Government's Rural Bus Challenge has proved to be an effective way of stimulating local authorities to develop innovative solutions to rural transport problems. However, it provides short term funding and does not encourage bus companies to take risks. It may also be detrimental to the continued operation of existing well-established community and voluntary transport schemes. Whilst recognising the difficulties of assessing Bus Challenge bids, local authorities would benefit from more feedback from Government when their bids are unsuccessful.

2.3  Bus Operators Grant (Fuel Duty Rebate)

  Registered local bus services receive a fuel duty rebate at a standard rate per gallon based on the amount of fuel consumed. This system does nothing to encourage through financial incentives, investment in higher quality or more efficient vehicles.


  The Bus Operators Grant should provide an incentive for investment in cleaner and more efficient vehicles and the use of alternative fuels. Consideration should be given to enabling local authorities to allocate the Grant themselves.


  Bus priority is important in rural areas. The County Council is improving bus stops and boarding facilities on strategic bus routes. The design of bus lay-bys and build outs is an important consideration in managing traffic and giving buses priority.


  The County Council recognises that the police often have higher priorities than the enforcement of restrictions prohibiting parking in bus lay-bys. The result, however, is that improvement to waiting and boarding facilities are poor value for money and a cause of traffic congestion. A levy both on bus operators and local authorities to employ more traffic wardens may be an effective way to remedy those problems.


  There is a need for some of the legislation governing the industry to be consolidated and clarified. For example, the establishment of the Fare Car schemes referred to above has not been easy, and has involved reliance on a variety of clauses in the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981 and Transport Act 1985.


  Community groups that have established and registered a town/community bus service cannot legally pay their drivers. One key legislative change would be to enable the operators of community bus services to employ paid (rather than voluntary) drivers under Section 22 of the Transport Act 1985.

  The case study below highlights the complexity of current legislation.

    Bray Travel Club

    The operation of the Bray Travel Club, a new local Fare Car scheme operating on the edge of Exmoor, aims to provide a flexible solution to meeting local transport needs. If the operator runs a car, it is covered by his Private Hire licence. If passenger demand, or vehicle availability, requires him to run a 16-seat minibus (he owns one under his Restricted PSV Operators Licence), it is not covered by Private Hire but would normally need to be a registered local bus service. But, contrary to the Fare Car concept, the minibus could not run purely on demand. The solution was to register an "excursion". In order to achieve flexibility of operation, the County Council had to explore numerous options and legal implications before arriving at a solution to suit the circumstances.


  Social inclusion is central to the county's rural bus network: it provides access to work and education opportunities and to shopping, cultural, and leisure facilities.

  For sparsely populated rural areas, the County Council's experience is that registered bus services are not always the best way to contribute to social inclusion and improve accessibility. The Authority, working in partnership with local communities is contributing to a variety of other solutions: "Wheels to Work" schemes, car share clubs (such as the one being developed in Ashburton), Fare Cars, cycle racks on buses and flexi-buses (which provide a door-to-door service). The costs, measured in "pounds per passenger", of providing services of this type are significantly higher than a scheduled bus service. The benefits are not easy to quantify: savings to the National Health Service, higher levels of employment and educational attainment.


  The Government should recognise the special issues of rural transport in remoter rural areas. It should offer support and guidance to local authorities to continue to invest and develop a range of alternative types of rural public transport to reduce social exclusion.

Edward Chorlton

County Environment Director and Deputy Chief Executive, Devon County Council

May 2002

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