A public meeting is set to be held on bus services in North East Somerset — in a village no longer accessible by bus.
A ‘big choices’ meeting is being held at Bishop Sutton Village Hall on Tuesday, September 12, by the West of England Metro Mayor Dan Norris for Chew Valley locals to share their thoughts on taxpayer support for local bus services.
People are asked to share their views on which passengers should be prioritised and how far taxpayers should go to subsidise journeys.
Mr Norris said: “Everyone always tells me their bus is really important. But we can’t just play ‘bus bingo’ with people shouting out numbers of buses they like.
“It has long been my view we need a proper evidence-based formula when it comes to buses. But to do that we need to work out some parameters.”
But Bath and North East Somerset Council has criticised the move to hold the meeting in a village now unreachable by public transport. The 672, the last bus in the Chew Valley, was cut at the end of June.
Speaking at a council cabinet meeting on September 7, the council’s member advocate for rural communities Fiona Gourley called it “ironic.”
The 672 is the most recent bus to be cut in a funding row between Bath and North East Somerset Council and the Metro Mayor over “supported services” — buses which are not commercially viable for bus companies to run so are paid for by local authorities.
The Metro Mayor pays for these buses, as part of his role as transport authority, with money paid to him by local councils known as a transport levy. Following significant inflation in the transport sector, councils did not increase their transport levy in line with inflation in January, instead arguing that the Metro Mayor should use government funding to pay for the buses.
But Mr Norris insisted the £57.7m ‘bus service improvement plan’ (BSIP) grant could not be spent on supported services. Bath and North East Somerset Council continued to fund all supported services in Bath for the year but only five of the supported buses in North East Somerset were funded and only up to the summer — of which the 672 was the last to stop running.
Ms Gourley said: “Residents in the Somer and Cam Valleys are stranded and find that WESTlink is not a reliable alternative. Currently at least 40,000 people in North East Somerset are impacted along the lost or at-risk bus routes.
“We know of North East Somerset residents living less than 20 minutes away forced to give up work in health and social care because they cannot get reliable public transport into Bath. As people return to education and work after the summer, this situation has become even more critical.”
She added that the government had now said BSIP funding could be used to support buses and urged Mr Norris to accept the council’s proposals for reinstating some local buses, which they sent to Mr Norris in July.
Ms Gourley said: “It would only cost around £2m annually to fund the lost buses. So, he should not spend £4m on cosmetic branding or £8m on ‘free birthday bus’ promotions when entire communities have lost their last service.”
She added that the council planned to launch a “rural bus petition” later this month.
In a statement Mr Norris said: “The only way to have a thriving bus network is to increase the number of passengers on the buses to create that virtuous cycle of more fare income to reinvest in better services for everyone.
“That’s why I’m proud to have brought in new and innovative schemes and offers, such as ‘birthday buses’ giving every resident in the West free travel throughout the month of their birthday. Because I want more and more people to try out buses and hopefully go on to continue to use them long term.”
He insisted: “It remains the responsibility of councils to fund subsidised services where there is a need but they aren’t commercially viable.
“I want to listen to the experiences of local people both living, working and studying in places with good bus services and where they need improvement. Hearing direct from the public is vital so I can benefit from their knowledge and wisdom, find out their priorities for taxpayers’ money and discuss what trade offs and compromises and big choices they are willing to make.”
The ‘big choices’ meeting on buses for Chew Valley residents will be held at Bishop Sutton Village Hall, Wick Road, Bishop Sutton, Bristol, BS39 5XQ on Tuesday, September 12, at 7pm.