Please Click HERE to read my recent letter to the Secretary of State for Transport about Wiltshire’s bus services.
I understand the increased pressures on the local Council’s finances as the Government reduces spending in order to cut the country’s deficit, ensure that the country lives within its means and set us on a firm economic footing.
There are currently two ways of running bus services, commercially and by subsidy. Subsidised services are used when it is not economically viable for a commercial operator to run a local service that Wiltshire Council believe is needed. I understand that there is no obligation on a council to subsidise any of the services and it is absolutely right that these subsidised services are regularly reviewed to ensure value for taxpayer funds.
I therefore very much welcome this Wiltshire Council review. I also believe that it is the right approach to review the Public Transport Strategy as part of a wider review of all areas of Wiltshire Council’s passenger transport remit, bringing together home-to-school and college transport, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), and social care client transport. I would, however, also have liked to see this review linked to the current rail provision through the county as I believe that the public are far more likely to use public transport if the networks are interconnected, well thought through and planned with travellers in mind.
I share the concerns of many of my constituents who believe that some of the changes to bus services could be to the detriment of public service provision, could lead to fewer people using public transport, increase traffic and congestion, but most significantly, reduce the potential for older and disabled residents’ to maintain their independence by accessing town centres and shops.
In commercial services, a bus operator can charge what they like, run services when they like and taxpayer funding is limited to paying for those with a concessionary bus pass. A commercial service will not in itself provide many rural bus services that some rely on. There are bus routes that generate millions of pounds of profit and others that don’t and never will, although many of these remain important bus routes for the communities they serve.
I believe we need a radical re-think of the way bus services in our county are delivered – which is why I so warmly welcome this review – and that the answer to the ongoing pressures on Wiltshire’s bus services is a local Quality Bus Contract (QBC). QBCs work very well in other areas of the country and I believe that they could be a solution for Wiltshire’s public transport.
A Quality Bus Contract will ensure that all services are operated by commercial companies, with no subsidy from taxpayers, but the contracts are to run specific services as set out by a Local Transport Board, which could bring together the councils, residents associations and industry experts.
As part of the Quality Bus Contract commercial operators are expected to run services to the specifications laid down by the Local Transport Board. Fares are set in the contract as are the routes they will run for the duration of the contract. The hugely profitable elements of the service simply subsidise the less profitable routes and encompass home-to-school and college transport, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), and social care client transport. The commercial company will still be able to make a profit, but it would mean that local people would have more of a say in local bus routes. The specifics of the QBC could be reviewed on a 5-yearly basis to keep up with trends in transport patterns in the county.
I believe that a Quality Bus Contract would be a win/win. It reduces the need for bus subsidy, it means a more thought through service, involves the community and has simple, affordable prices and ultimately will help encourage the use of public transport.
I hope that within the review a Quality Bus Contract is seriously considered as part of Wiltshire Council’s Local Transport Plan review.