Bus Services after the Spending Review - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from J Richardson-Dawes (BUS 108)

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on changes to local bus services.

In the context of severe reductions in Government funding, it is understandable that local authorities have had to consider their service priorities. Whilst a large proportion of local authority services are based on statutory duties, the payment of subsidy to non-commercial local bus services is a power, not a duty.

Nevertheless, some authorities have failed to give due weight to the importance of local bus services in underpinning people's social and economic well-being. "Socially necessary" in the context of Deregulation means precisely that. Quite literally, large numbers of people build their lives - decisions as to where to live, work, send their children to school etc—around public transport links. Such dependence exists not just in car-owning households and I quote my own as an example.

We are currently a four-adult household: two parents + two grown-up offspring. I am the only qualified driver. My wife uses local buses on business. My daughter depends on a local bus to go to work. My son, a student, uses local buses to get to vacation work. We all use local buses for social activities and leisure. All of the services we use for essential travel are County Council-subsidized.

Devon County Council has reduced its budget for local bus subsidies in 2011-12 by £1.35 million - about 20%. The Council has been careful in its decisions as to which services to reduce or withdraw and has genuinely sought to minimize the impact on people and communities. Even so, lives have been disrupted or literally ruined. Jobs will be lost, family links broken, education disrupted.

It is unrealistic to expect the community sector to step in. Community transport does well in complementing mainstream public transport services, but it does not have the potential to expand on anything like the scale necessary to replace bus networks. The biggest single cost element in public transport is the cost of drivers. The community sector's sole significant advantage therefore is its use of volunteer labour. There is a chronic shortage of volunteers. If expansion entails increasing use of paid drivers, then the sector loses its cost advantage. The sector should not be assumed even to be cost-effective. A community group which buys a new minibus only to have it standing idle through lack of drivers or organization to use it is a bigger waste of money than any conventional bus service.

The National Bus Pass scheme should be seriously reviewed and in due course curtailed. At the same time as reducing bus subsidies by £1.35 million, Devon County Council is legally obliged to spend around £12 million on the National Bus Pass. We are now in the absurd situation where people have a free pass, but fewer buses on which to use it. Increasing numbers of people, when considering the issue carefully, conclude that, rather than have a free fare on a declining network, they would happily pay a half-fare and have the savings used to improve the bus network. It is also highly debateable whether all recipients of free travel genuinely need it. With respect to travel costs there is just as much hardship among younger working people as among the retired. It is especially grieving to see working people lose their jobs because of bus cuts, while comfortably off retired people enjoy free leisure travel.

With respect to taking passengers' views into account when planning changes to bus services, my sympathies shift towards local authorities and bus companies. The public expect fabulous bus services but are generally unwilling to pay the fares or the taxes to support them. Moreover, it is all too common for communities to lobby for service improvements only for these to be poorly supported in terms of passenger usage. It is unrealistic to expect bus companies and local authorities to risk scarce resources on service provision based over-optimistic passenger representations. Bus companies acting commercially generally have a very good idea how to run successful services which are responsive to genuine demand. Local authorities likewise, if they work with their bus companies are generally good at allocating resources where the passenger numbers are sufficient. There is no reason to suppose that parish councils or self-appointed groups and individuals are representative of genuine demand. "bums on seats" is what matters and the commercial imperative among bus companies plus local authorities spending wisely can generally identify where they are.

I would go on to defend bus companies. They are not charities. As businesses in the free market, they are obliged to trade commercially. No one should be surprised therefore when they take decisions which are commercially sound but not always popular. The legislation is clear: the public purse may fill gaps left by commercial provision.

The Committee may wish to consider how much more the Hackney Carriage and Private Hire sector might contribute towards the public transport network. This can be a strong complement to the bus network and several local authorities - Devon included - have made use of what the sector has to offer by way of spare capacity at marginal cost.

I trust these comments are useful and thank you once more for the opportunity to contact you.

April 2011

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