Bus Services after the Spending Review - Transport Committee Contents

Further written evidence from NECTAR (BUS 16a)

1.  These comments come from NECTAR - the North East Combined Transport Activists' Roundtable. As noted below, they are a modified version of what we sent to the House of Commons Transport Committee in early January this year, with the addition of remarks prompted by firm evidence of local authority bus cuts in the North-East region of England as at 25 February 2011.

2.  NECTAR is an open, voluntary, umbrella body, established to provide a forum in which the many organisations with an interest in sustainable transport in all its forms can develop a co-ordinated view on contemporary transport issues.

3.  NECTAR is one of a national network of Transport Activists' Roundtables sustained through Campaign for Better Transport. As such, NECTAR provides opportunity for the exchange of news, studies and information.

4.  In responding to this Inquiry so as to meet the original 4 January 2011 closing-date, NECTAR realised that much of the specific information about consequences to bus services of Government-imposed local authority cuts would not be available until well after that date. We are thankful, as well as glad, to see that, as a result of requests by (presumably) many others across the country as well as by NECTAR, the House of Commons Inquiry closing-date has been put back to 28 February. Our remarks are in two main parts - the general and the particular.


5.  We have noted, from the Government's Department of Transport Business Plan 2011-2015, published in November 2010 and to be annually updated, that the Coalition Priorities (under heading B, page 2) include, at No.3, the intention to "encourage sustainable local travel.... by making public transport.... more attractive and effective, promoting lower carbon transport and tackling local road congestion". This Priority is an expanded version of part of the previous page's paragraphs headed "Vision", which also aims "to make transport cleaner and greener".

6.  If, as we hope, this government is sincere in these aims and priorities, then the one thing that it must not do is reduce the amount of money that is spent on providing bus services (and, indeed, any and every other form of transport that produces, proportionally, lower carbon emission figures than do cars and lorries). This prohibition applies just as strongly whether the reduction in funding is specified directly by central government or achieved, at one remove, by manoeuvring local authorities into compliance in the face of lower overall levels of income.

7.  Yet the terms of this Inquiry start from an assumption that such reduction is already taking place. So we cannot underline too strongly, once more, this inherent contradiction between the DfT Business Plan as quoted and the Terms of Reference given to those providing and/or sifting evidence that is considered relevant to "Bus Services after the Spending Review".

8.  We therefore urge the House of Commons Transport Committee to take what steps it can in its own right to point out that just about every item of evidence it receives for this Inquiry is firm indication, also, that thanks to the Spending Review the Coalition's Business Plan is bound to fail in its aim to promote lower-carbon transport and to tackle road congestion with any success.

9.  Before moving to specific summary details of proposed bus cuts known to us, we make an increasingly significant general point about Bank Holiday period bus service reductions, especially as applied to the Christmas and New Year holidays. These, in 2010-11, highlighted more than usually vividly the inequitable provision of public transport in general in the UK. Unlike most other European countries, we have to do without all buses and trains on Christmas Day itself, as well as (in most areas) a similar dearth throughout Boxing Day. On New Year's Day itself, customs vary - no buses in North-Eastern England, and few trains, mainly those from further afield, eg Transpennine trains between Manchester and Middlesbrough, rather than local Northern Rail services.

10.  We have tried to persuade transport operators to run at least limited services on these three days, but with no success - it is not that local authorities and/or bus operators are against the idea in principle, but that they have not been prepared to take the financial risk that they see in putting such services on. This, to us, is a clear sign that public transport is still regarded, in practice, as a fall-back to private travel provision. There is also a hidden bias against the bus as a form of transport, in that we know and support strongly the continuing moves by rail operators towards a "Seven-Day Railway", by vastly improving the frequency and quality of Sunday train services. The most conspicuous example of this is the forthcoming East Coast main-line timetable reforms that begin on 22 May (a Sunday, appropriately enough), with Sunday afternoon and evening frequencies, at least, to match those on weekdays.

11.  If rail operators can do this, privatised as they are, why is the same not seen on the buses? Absence of more than skeletal bus services on Sundays of all kinds is bad enough, never mind on Bank Holidays, for which most bus operators think a Sunday service will do. But the many threatened withdrawals of existing local authority-supported Sunday services will, if carried out, mean that vast tracts of the country - even of some urban areas - will in effect have no bus services at all for two days in succession at Easter weekend, two Bank Holiday weekends in May, and on the last weekend in August - and these are exactly the days on which many people will have more chance to get out and about than normal. To add insult to injury, this year's total is increased further, by the Royal Wedding Bank Holiday on Friday 29 April - just after most service-cuts are newly in place.

12.  Does the Government have any plans, we wonder, to level the imbalance between private and public transport by limiting car use by the same amount? This is not as fanciful as it might seem - Athens is said to have banned half the car-fleet on alternate days to combat its urban congestion and pollution problems, theoretically grounding every motorist for 182 days each year. If we add up all the Sundays and Bank Holidays in a normal year, we get sixty days on which, for an increasing number of people, bus travel will be impossible. Is that a rational element in any campaign to encourage increased use of public transport? Or may we, perhaps, look forward to an early announcement that, to treat all kinds of road transport users equally and fairly, motorists, too, must henceforth lock cars away in their garages for 60 days every year?


13.  Recently-prepared Local Transport Plan 3 bids in the Tees-side area put great weight on the development of better public transport as the only way to reduce road traffic congestion, and to deal at least in part with excessive CO2 emissions. (This opinion, incidentally, is even shared by our regional Highways Agency, of all people!) The increasing cost of petrol now adds even more urgency to this aim. Yet councils in at least two of the five constituent boroughs of the Tees Valley - Hartlepool and Stockton—have had to vote to cut bus-service provision, at times drastically, at just the times of day and days of the week when growth in bus use is most desirable - evenings and Sundays. The other three boroughs, Redcar, Middlesbrough, and Darlington, have not published any specific information in time to include it here, suggesting that they are faced with agonising choices that they know will bring hardship to many, and not just bus users - many jobs nowadays call for irregular and/or unusual working hours, weekends and evenings included. So we must, in fairness to all the council officials concerned, repeat our view that this entire bus-cutting exercise has been driven by a doctrinaire government reduction in funds to local authorities, manipulated in such a way that the general public might be led to think that it is the local councillors on whom the blame should fall, when the reality is usually otherwise [cf. §6 above].

14.  Hartlepool borough services are the worst affected of any in the North-East - despite the considerable amount of poverty and deprivation that exists, particularly but not only in the urban area. Large swathes of the town, including High Tunstall, Hartlepool Headland, Rift House, Owton Manor, Seaton Carew, Elwick village and Dalton Piercy village, will have virtually nothing on Sundays and after 18.30 on any evening. The villages may well retain no buses at all, even during the day on weekdays. This is bound to cause quite unacceptable social isolation, in clear breach of several clauses of the Transport Act of 2000, for instance.

15.  There is another worrying aspect to the Hartlepool cuts. Most of the dedicated Hospital bus links are also in the list for withdrawal. This in itself is bad enough, but should be read alongside some proposals for a new hospital eight miles west of Hartlepool town centre, whose functions are not all clear but which will call for regular, frequent and reliable public transport throughout every day and night for those many people living in the town without their own cars. It is true that the first round of government cuts included the cancellation of this project, but a lot of local energy is being put into finding alternative funding for it, government cuts notwithstanding. Even so, a situation could exist in which, if the hospital is built, buses could be laid on in its first years and then removed at little notice later on, for reasons similar to those that have caused the rash of bus service cuts now. This, admittedly hypothetical at present, is not a situation that any user of public transport can view with optimism.

16.  Stockton borough services The council in this borough has striven endlessly to keep the range of tendered bus services that it has. Last September, it even managed to re-introduce a direct evenings and Sundays bus link between Middlesbrough and Billingham that had been taken off a few months earlier for fiscal reasons. Yet this is one of seven routes for which notice of withdrawal has had to be issued - just as its existence was beginning to make itself felt among the people in the areas for which it was designed.

17.  Northumberland county services It is to this county's great credit that practically all the tendered bus services operated now will survive after this April. NECTAR suspects, but has no evidence for the theory, that the method of working out grant employed by this government works in favour of counties of this size and type, to the detriment (however unintentional) of the more urban areas such as Hartlepool and Stockton. But equally we have no grounds for thinking that Northumberland's present level of service-support can be maintained into the 2012-13 funding season.

18.  Tyne and Wear area To the best of our understanding, bus services are largely protected from cuts, at least in the 2011-12 financial year. This does not preclude changes in service-levels later on, but at least it continues a long-standing commitment by this conurbation to the maintenance of good-quality public transport as widely as possible. Concluding remarks:

19.  We know that the Inquiry aims to find out the effects of the cuts on bus services, and we have tried to keep to its terms of reference as far as we humanly can. The problem with doing this, even after the welcome extension of the "reply" period, is that the effects of even the mildest of cuts will not be seen until the start of April at the earliest. As a closing remark, therefore, we should like to express our disquiet at the fact that the Traffic Commissioners, to whom all applications for changes in bus service operations must be made, 56 days in advance of their intended start-date, do not have any powers to hear objections from the general public. If they had, of course, they would now be inundated with such complaints, and no doubt the bus cuts would have had to be postponed to match. We ask the House of Commons Transport Committee members, therefore, to take into account this obstacle to bus users who wish to do anything practical themselves towards limiting, or even preventing entirely, reductions in their bus services.

20. Over and above the details and the legalities, we are reminded of a remark by George Bernard Shaw—"Advice to those thinking of getting married - don't". Once these bus cuts are in place, anyone thinking of giving up a private car in favour of total dependence on public transport in this country can hardly be blamed, despite the entirely different context, if, sadly, he or she takes GBS's advice.

February 2011

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