How we can save our buses

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Michelle Donelan column Wiltshire Gazette & Herald 02 June 16 saving buses
Buses are important to many of Wiltshire’s communities. Whether it is the bus through Pewsham in Chippenham, the services through our villages, Corsham or Melksham or the RUH Hooper bus that serves Bradford on Avon, people value their own local service.

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. 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 believe that the current system will 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.

As services come under threat, residents are understandably anxious and many contact their councillor or MP. Sharing the concerns of many of my constituents, last summer I highlighted some of the problems facing bus services in an article for this paper and in letters to both Wiltshire Council and the Department of Transport.

In response the government is introducing a the Bus Services Bill, a framework that aims to fix the country’s piecemeal approach to bus operations and hand back more controlling power to local people. The new law will see “enhanced partnerships” put in place between bus companies and local councils, with some areas given the power to introduce their own bus franchising schemes.

Last Friday I met with the TransWilts, whose aim is to promote increasing usage of public transport for benefit of the communities living and working in Wiltshire, to hear how one of these “enhanced partnerships” could work for us. I am convinced that it will.

These bus franchises open up competition to improve the level of service while also maintaining overall control of the network. This would end the deregulated approach that’s in place across much of England, where bus companies get contracts and can then do whatever they like with routes, timetables, tickets and pricing.

Regions with elected mayors will be able to introduce this all by themselves under devolution powers, with other areas needing to seek permission from the Transport Secretary first. I believe that Wiltshire can put together a compelling case for these new powers and I look forward to working with the Council and TransWilts to see whether we can deliver a comprehensive bus service that the county can be proud of.

I think our local bus services are vital to our communities and I will continue to work hard to ensure that this new model of bus services is implemented locally as quickly as possible.