Support for tax rise for better bus services in our region

The meeting on Thursday

Readers of The Week In have given Metro Mayor Dan Norris their ideas and priorities for improving buses.

A series of ‘Big Choices on Buses’ community meetings are being held in the region and dozens of people attended the one organised by The Week In at The Space in Keynsham on Thursday when an overwhelming majority were in support of the Mayor raising a public transport precept via council tax bills in the region.

Government COVID funding for buses runs out in October even though fewer journeys are being made and bus costs, like everything else, are soaring. Mr Norris leads the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), which is the regional transport authority. WECA and the three local councils – Bath & North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Bristol – have offered to fund the 60 or so buses they currently subsidise until next April, but that will depend on whether the bus companies choose to continue running them.

Although the bus companies and WECA are investing in recruitment campaigns and training, given the bus driver shortage of up to 150 vacancies, cuts are expected.

Alan Peters, of bus provider Abus, told the meeting that before deregulation of the buses, the then Avon County Council paid Bristol Omnibus Company £5m as network subsidy; last year the total given by councils in the WECA area in support of bus services was a similar amount so there has been no inflationary rise in support since 1986.

Dan Norris

Annual funding from the local councils to WECA for bus services amounts to just £20.49 per head. Mr Norris said: “When we have people talking, particularly councils, about the importance of buses, that is not being matched by what they are paying. I get lots of petitions from people complaining about buses but it is often from the leaders of the party not providing enough money to sort that out.”

He continued: “Rather than me hassling the council leaders, who pay about a third of what they do in other parts of the country towards public transport in our region, how many would you prefer there was a precept to pay for public transport with the assumption that the money will be spent wisely and well?”

An overwhelming majority agreed that in principle they would.

Other key points raised at the meeting were:

  • The reliability of bus services is more important than frequency.
  • The last service on any route needs to run so people aren’t stranded.
  • Make buses cheaper for workers to get them out of their car.
  • Timetables on bus stops need to be up to date.
  • It’s an issue that different providers’ tickets can’t be interchanged.
  • Buses are very expensive outside the city zones.
  • Bus services should run longer into the evening.
  • Run some or all of the X39 buses via Keynsham town rather than along the bypass where there are no passengers to pick up.
  • Turn Brislington Park & Ride into an interchange to make full use of the site.
  • Give incremental bonuses for bus drivers who train locally to try to retain them.
  • Give bus drivers visas to come from abroad.

Concern was also raised about how Longwell Green has become an almost “bus-less village” other than the 17, and about the lack of a bus service from Bitton into Bristol.

Mayor Norris told the meeting said there is good news on the horizon as WECA secured the second highest amount of money in the country for buses – about two-thirds of a billion pounds – that will kick in next April. But this funding cannot be used on existing services, only on new, innovative ones. It can also be used on supporting fares and things like community transport and demand responsive schemes with minibuses.

He said: “I do believe that the future can be very positive providing we make the right decision and the right calls now.”

We printed a survey in last week’s issue for people to also have their say on buses. A printable survey is also available on WECA’s website.