Conflicting ideas about the Metro Mayor’s Birthday Bus and WESTLink bus schemes have come to light in a paper from the BSIP task and finish group, whilst one Chew Valley resident calls the scheme “valuable” and asks for further links.

According to the paper, written by BSIP task and finish group, the new bus schemes in the West of England are helping the rich and those who can “exploit the system.”

The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) received — together with North Somerset Council — a collective £106m of “bus service improvement plan” (BSIP) funding from the government to spend on finding ways to improve bus services in the region. But the flagship birthday bus scheme and WESTlink are not working as intended, a task and finish group set up to look at the spending has warned.

At the same time, many communities are still with no bus service at all after “savage cuts” to buses across the region last year. Publicly supported buses were cut after the Councils that make up WECA did not increase their “transport levy” — which pays for the buses — in line with the high 40% inflation in the bus sector last year, arguing that Metro Mayor Dan Norris should instead use the BSIP funding to pay for the buses. Mr Norris said he could not as the money was only for “new and innovative” bus schemes.

But now those schemes have come under fire. A paper from the BSIP task and finish group warned that the birthday bus scheme — which offers people a free bus pass in the month of their birthday — is benefitting the richest 10% of the region significantly more than the poorest 10%, and a fares scheme targeted based on age, employment or socio-economic status may work better. Bristol City councillor Ed Plowden, who authored the paper, also questioned whether increasing passenger numbers could really be attributed to the scheme.

The paper also warned: “WESTlink appears to have been poorly planned and procured.” Introduced in April 2023, WESTlink is a demand-responsive transport (DRT) scheme where minibuses are booked by app and follow flexible routes instead of set timetables. The scheme was intended to allow people in areas underserved by public transport to connect to bus route, but the size of the zones people can travel within has led some people to take much longer journeys.

Calling for further links in the area, Mr Blythe, a Chew Magna resident who is praising the WESTLink scheme told The Gazette: “The WESTlink bus service is very valuable for the villages of the Chew Valley. These include Chew Magna, Stanton Drew, Chew Stoke, Winford, Bishop Sutton, Litton, Ubley, Blagdon, Priddy (and others). For travelling within the Valley it is very good. However, there is one serious lack, access to Wells.

“For this area, Wells is the most important centre. Important destinations include a bank, three super markets and several specialised shops, all otherwise unobtainable without use of a car. But travelling to Wells from this area requires transfer to and linking the journey with the timetable of a different bus service. Particularly for the return journey from Wells to home, this has proved really difficult. I myself and other people have been stranded at the transfer point.

“The WESTlink service includes single journey access to Clevedon and other towns at the extreme ends of the area, centres of far little use compared with the importance of visits to Wells.

“In the annual review of WESTlink and its value to the Chew Valley, please can single journey to and from Wells be included as a priority item. It is the one change we most urgently need.”

Mr Norris said: “I think we have messed up […] on some of the zones. I think the zones have been the wrong shape and size.”

He added that WESTlink were not always going to hospitals and train stations and said that needed to change.

He said: “We are trying to deal with all those challenges, but it is quite difficult because the rules the government give us are quite strict.”

Reffering to the area coverage, Mike Bird, a North Somerset Councillor, said: “There’s one guy who goes eight miles up the A38 into Bristol every day because of the size of the zone on his own. And I see 75% of buses going round with nobody on them.”

Bristol City councillor Geoff Gollop said Councillors were “shocked” that the people benefiting from WESTlink may have been the people less in need of it, adding that the scheme was “not simply for those who are most IT aware and most able to think how to exploit the system.”

A review of all aspects is currently underway, and the size of the zones people can travel within is set to shrink, something Mr Blythe may not be interested to hear.

Mr Norris said it had not been intended to replace supported buses but it said “inevitable” when buses were cut.

He added: “Politicians of each unitary [authority, i.e. Council] wanted it to be seen that way because they had to make cuts because they had frozen the levy.”

That was the rationale given by Bath and North East Somerset Council leader Kevin Guy in February 2023, when explaining why the Council was protecting supported bus services in Bath, which was not covered by WESTlink, while North East Somerset, where WESTlink did launch, lost almost all of its buses.

The issue was raised in parliament in December by North East Somerset’s MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who urged the government to cut its funding to WECA over the bus cuts, adding: “It spends it extraordinarily badly on vanity schemes for the mayor.”

Speaking at the scrutiny panel, Mr Norris said WECA’s hands were slightly tied by the government. He said: “If I had freedom to use that money, I would be doing different things.”

He added: “The government have asked for innovative and new and that’s what we are trying to do. So we need to keep innovating; we need to keep trying new stuff. But my view is that [WESTlink]’s got potential but that potential is not yet fulfilled by any means. It’s quite a way off where it needs to be.”