Bus Services after the Spending Review - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from Dales & Bowland Community Interest Company (DBCIC) (BUS 21)


DBCIC is a social enterprise company founded in 2007 by the Yorkshire Dales Society and the Yorkshire Dales Public Transport Users Group to replace the Sunday bus service between Ilkley and Skipton withdrawn in 2006. It has since taken on management of much of the Sunday and Bank Holiday DalesBus network of bus services within and into the Yorkshire Dales National Park, trebling passenger numbers, attracting revenue grants from other stakeholders in both public and private sectors and halving the subsidy per passenger journey previously paid by North Yorkshire County Council. Additionally some seasonal weekday journeys have been operated in 2009 and 2010. In 2010-11 DBCIC services have already carried over 23,000 passengers and the required support per passenger has been further reduced. A briefing note on DBCIC is appended to this evidence including an annex with financial and performance statistics updated to include the latest information from 2010-11.

Unfortunately, DBCIC is currently facing the loss of its revenue funding from North Yorkshire County Council and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and there is further uncertainty about the ability of some other funders to support DalesBus in 2011-12.

The Company welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Transport Committee's Inquiry into "Bus Services after the Spending Review". Responses to the four issues raised by the Committee are detailed below. If required the Company will be pleased to supplement this evidence orally.

1.  Impact of the Reduction in BSOG

As this will not come into effect until April 2012, DBCIC can only predict the impact based upon experience. It is likely to affect rural operations to a greater extent than urban operations as fuel costs are a greater proportion of total operating costs for a rural bus service due to the longer distances travelled and faster journey speeds. However fuel will remain a relatively small proportion (< 25%) of total bus operating costs which are dominated by labour costs, vehicle depreciation and maintenance and insurance premiums. DBCIC costs are predominantly the costs of contracts placed after securing services through competitive tender together with marketing expenditure.

Accordingly the impact should be containable provided operators do not use the changes in BSOG as an excuse to raise tender prices disproportionately. Of more concern is the likelihood of further increases in oil prices, as many smaller rural bus operators have to purchase diesel at local pump prices and are unable to negotiate large discounts with suppliers which the large groups receive.

2.  Impact of Local Authority Grant Support Cuts

As indicated in the introduction, this is a major concern for DBCIC as at the time of writing North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) is intending to withdraw support for all Sunday and evening bus services and is also implementing cuts to weekday networks. The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) had already signalled its intention to cease funding DalesBus after 2010 and Metro (WYITA) is facing budget pressures but still hopes to maintain a similar level of support in 2011. DBCIC has had considerable success in working to involve other stakeholders in funding its activities and had hopes of extending the funding base, for example by securing contributions from the health sector to reflect the healthy living benefits of DalesBus services and from other Dales business and community organisations on the basis of the proven benefits to the Dales economy and environment of the services. However, with the severity of cuts affecting the public sector and the consequential impacts on many Dales businesses who supply public organisations, not to mention the direct increase in unemployment we have to take a pessimistic view of the prospects for significant additional funding to replace the NYCC and YDNPA grants at this stage.

The proposed LA grant support reductions therefore threaten to have a severe impact on sustainable access to and around the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the surrounding area. Bus services are likely to disappear on Sundays and Bank Holidays from much of this area, which has few rail links, creating significant adverse economic, social and environmental impacts.

Directors of DBCIC have met with local MPs at the House of Commons to gain their support for a bid to the new Local Sustainable Transport Fund as a pilot "Big Society" project but it is feared that this funding will not be available in time to save the Summer 2011 DalesBus season which would normally commence at Easter (one of the busiest weekends of the year for tourism in the Dales). Funding for the core network of services which DBCIC manages on a year-round basis also ceases at the end of the financial year in March, thereby placing these popular services at severe risk in the short-term.

Experience has shown that withdrawal of services results in loss of regular passengers, often to cars. Even if services are subsequently reinstated a substantial marketing push is required to build up new patronage let alone increase it from previous levels. This would be particularly disappointing as DBCIC's marketing has been notably successful in attracting new business. In recognition of the Company's innovative approach to service development and marketing we received SIS (Stimulating Innovation for Success) funding from Nottingham Business School in 2009 to assist with marketing the DalesBus network; this contributed to 56% growth in passenger numbers in 2009.

It is often not recognised (particularly in political circles it has to be said!) that cutting subsidised services will also have an adverse impact on commercial and indeed other supported services in the area. This is because many return journeys will be made in one direction in the daytime when services may be commercial or supported on the basis that daytime services are busier and therefore of greater "value" than evening or weekend services. If the evening or weekend service is no longer available both legs of the return journey are lost. In consequence the user suffers, in many cases accentuating social exclusion for low income families in rural areas, bus operators suffer additional loss of income on their remaining commercial or supported services and, if the trips transfer to car, there are potential adverse consequences for the environment and energy conservation.

DBCIC has been working to increase the utility of its services (which were initially designed for leisure and recreational use for the local Dales communities) and fears that the impact of the NYCC approach to blanket subsidy cuts will be disproportionately severe on workers in rural areas, particularly in the service sectors, many of whom have to travel on evening services and for people travelling to attend clinics and hospitals, whether as patients or visitors, who also need to travel in evening and weekend periods.

Even if DBCIC is able to secure funding to maintain its existing core services at 2010 levels in the coming year, the loss of NYCC support for other services within the DalesBus network, some of which act as feeders to services managed by DBCIC, is a serious concern. Whilst DBCIC could not replace these services without additional funding an offer has been made to NYCC to manage these services. We anticipate that the support required would be 20% lower than 2010 cost levels. By the end of 2010, this offer had not been taken up by the Council, although productive discussions are in progress regarding the inclusion of DBCIC and community transport proposals within a NYCC-led bid for support from the Sustainable Local Transport Fund, when this comes into effect later in 2011. We remain concerned however that, without sufficient funding to cover the period until the outcome of the bid is known, the Dales are vulnerable to discontinuation of several core services from April 2011.

3.  Impact of Free Concessionary Fares

DBCIC supports all measures to increase the use of public transport so the principle of free bus travel is to be welcomed. However although this is a universal benefit (ie not means tested) it is also an unequal benefit as it is of no use if there are inadequate or non-existent bus services to use it on. Furthermore it is a hindrance to improving rural bus services if it results in lower total income for operators as is the case with DalesBus.

The problem emanates from the false assumption for rural bus services that free travel will generate large numbers of additional passengers and these can be accommodated within existing capacity. Infrequent weekday services such as those found within the Yorkshire Dales area in Swaledale, Wensleydale and Upper Wharfedale are still carrying essentially the same passengers but the concessionary reimbursements are considerably less than the fares previously paid. DalesBus services from West Yorkshire conurbations into the Dales have generated additional concessionary passengers but these buses were well patronised pre 2008 (or else they would not have been operating) and are now prone to overcrowding which discourages fare-paying passengers.

Worse still for DBCIC, total revenue is less than pre-2008 as the CIC has resisted the temptation to increase adult fares to compensate for the lost revenue and indeed generate extra concessionary reimbursements. By comparison, some operators have increased adult fares and rover tickets by over 25% to generate additional concessionary reimbursements. The iconic Yorkshire Dalesman service from York and Leeds to Hawes every Summer Sunday carried an average of over 100 passengers every day throughout the season with standing loads on peak days but due to the high proportion of concessionary passengers carried (approximately 70%) and the low reimbursement rates for long distance services, it failed to break even let alone deliver a profit which most users would expect it to achieve.

Several DalesBus services are limited to smaller vehicles by the infrastructure of the road network in the Dales, especially the arch at Bolton Abbey and narrow roads with steep gradients around Malham Tarn, Dentdale, Swaledale and Upper Nidderdale. On these roads a 30 seater vehicle is considered a "large bus" (16 to 25 seaters are the norm) and as such vehicles are often classified as coaches with seat belts, standees are not permitted. If 70% of passengers carried are concessionaries, a full load may only contain six fare-paying passengers and the total income generated may only be the equivalent of 12 fare-payers. On some routes, children carried commercially at half fare generate more income for the operator than elderly concessionaries.

A further problem generated by free concessionary bus travel is the perception that rail travel (even with a Railcard) is disproportionately expensive leading to elderly passenger resistance to integrated rail-bus services for longer journeys. This is very unfortunate as both Northern Rail and the Friends of the Settle Carlisle Line are prepared to support connecting buses at Ribblehead and Dent Stations to enable the Leeds-Settle-Carlisle trains (which are running anyway with spare capacity and receiving DfT support) to be used for the "long haul" with a short connecting bus journey into Dentdale, Swaledale and Upper Wensleydale. Such services are much faster than long distance buses and can actually be quicker than travelling by car and considerably more environmentally friendly.

Free travel also has a tendency to lead to poorer service quality as concessionary passengers are less likely to complain and the usual compensation provided by operators (free travel vouchers) is of no benefit to them. This corollary applies to other public services offered free at the point of use such as car parking, the NHS and public conveniences.

4.  Taking Account of Passenger Views

DBCIC's business model is built on inclusivity and responding to the views and needs of the wide base of Stakeholders including users, community organisations, funders and operators. For example, the Company consults with the Yorkshire Dales Public Transport Users Group on a regular basis to ensure that its services meet the needs of their users. DBCIC directors and volunteers travel regularly on DalesBus services talking to passengers and monitoring standards of operation and we have worked with the University of Central Lancashire and Nottingham Business School on research projects which have included passenger surveys and market research.

Whilst it was pleasing to see that NYCC put its proposal to cut evening and Sunday services out to consultation, it is disappointing that examination of the published reports to the Council's Executive and Scrutiny Committee suggests that the concerns expressed by over 300 users and other stakeholders do not appear to have resulted in any modifications whatsoever to the council's original plans. It is also unfortunate that NYCC are not even going to reply individually to objectors, including a substantial number of representative organisations such as parish and town councils and business groups.

For many years it was anomalous that the generally more affluent and eloquent market segment of rail passengers had statutory representation on a wide range of issues, but that the far larger, but generally less vociferous, group of bus passengers had only a voluntary mechanism established after the 1985 Transport Act deregulated bus services outside London. DBCIC was therefore pleased when Passenger Focus remit was extended to include bus services and we have had some useful contact with its officers. We also maintain liaison with other organisations who take an interest in matters affecting bus passengers, both nationally and locally, including Bus Users UK, the Campaign for Better Transport and Travel Watch North West. It is however unclear how much influence these organisations are currently able to exert on behalf of the passenger.

With the resources available to Passenger Focus it is likely that its interest in bus matters will be mainly directed to general monitoring and suggestions for improvement on an industry wide basis. It is gratifying that they have already recognised that the bus industry needs the active involvement of local highway and transport authorities and we believe that they are taking a close interest in the way in which decisions are taken to allocate contracts for supported services.

January 2011

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