Bath and North East Somerset Council have sent the Metro Mayor proposals for a “cost effective” network of bus routes which they are urging him to fund, writes Local Democracy Reporter John Wimperis.
Many buses in North East Somerset have been cut and more are under threat amid a funding row between the council and the West of England Metro Mayor Dan Norris over whose responsibility it is to fund the routes.
Speaking at a meeting of the council’s cabinet on Thursday July 13, deputy leader of the council Sarah Warren said her team had developed a proposal that they believed could solve the crisis.
She said: “To address this desperate situation, my team and I have spent the last few months talking to both [Bath and North East Somerset councillors] and parish councillors from across North East Somerset, cabinet leads from neighbouring councils, bus experts, campaigners and residents, as well as to the Metro Mayor and his staff. We have developed a proposal that provides a cost-effective solution to improve local services.”
Ms Warren proposed that Mr Norris fund or co-fund several at-risk buses, alter or extend others to cover cut-off areas, and run WESTlink buses as regular services on some key routes at peak times.
The two have had high-profile clashes over the funding of the buses. He insists that it is the council who is responsible for finding the money to keep the bus services running. He said their transport levy contribution to the West of England had only been enough to fund some bus services, which the council had selected itself.
Speaking at cabinet, Ms Warren said: “In this financial year we have increased our contribution by 30% to £1m, recognising the significant increases in costs to provide bus services. Unfortunately however, the prices of our bus services increased by around 200%.
“Like other councils, [Bath and North East Somerset] has no significant funding for buses over and above that which is already transferred annually to [the West of England Combined Authority] as our transport levy. The remainder of our budget is fully committed to other purposes.”
Ms Warren said that Mr Norris should use some of the £57m Bus Service Improvement Plan funding from the government to fund the routes. Originally ringfenced against being used on supported bus services by the government, they have now indicated the money may be able to be used to support buses, although Mr Norris has warned “the devil will be in the detail.”
Meanwhile, people in rural North East Somerset have keenly felt the impact of the cuts.
In an address to the cabinet, Joy Arnold told councillors: “I have lived in Tunley for 60 years, during which time we have always had a bus service to and from Bath, and onwards to Timsbury and Paulton. The loss of the 768 and 179 bus services is a real problem for me.”
She told the meeting she had not had a good experience with WESTlink. She said: “It is not reliable and is therefore of no use when you have to keep appointments such as doctors, dentist, hospital etc.”
She described waiting for over an hour at Odd Down Park and Ride for a WESTlink to take her home from an appointment, eventually having to ask a coach driver if he could ring her daughter at work to collect her.
In the proposals sent to the Metro Mayor, the council has proposed that the 522 bus, which was launched in April and connects Bath and Bristol via Midsomer Norton, be re-routed to connect the cities via Tunley and Hallatrow instead. The proposal states this would bring a good bus service back to these villages, rather than to areas with good bus services already, and make the route faster.
The proposals also suggest extending the Frome to Midsomer Norton 414 bus to Paulton, in order to replace the popular Radstock to Paulton 82 bus which was cut last month. The proposal suggests that the Metro Mayor co-fund the route with Somerset County Council, who fund the current 414.
Other proposals include keeping the Trowbridge to Bath 94 running by the Metro Mayor co-funding it with Wiltshire County Council; funding the Chew Valley’s 672 bus — which is due to finish on July 31 — for another year using Local Transport Fund funding.
The council also proposes using the on-demand WESTlink buses to run a timetabled service along the routes of the axed 179 and 768 services at rush hour and school times. In the longer term, the proposals suggest a new 777 bus to serve this route at peak times.
In a letter to Mr Norris, council leader Kevin Guy urged him to adopt the proposals. He said: “We all need the opportunity to travel independently, not to own a car and to travel by healthier means, and the Bus Service Improvement Plan fund was designed to support this aim. Both our rural bus services, and small local bus companies, play an essential part in our communities and now require support from the West of England Combined Authority. We all need a public transport system we can all rely on the good of the planet and the future.”