Lost services could be reinstated, but will Northamptonshire’s new plans ‘bus back better?’
The new councils have laid out their bus plans for the future, but are they ambitious enough?
By Sarah Ward
Part of Boris Johnson’s multifaceted plan to recover from the effects of the pandemic, tackle climate change and ‘level up’ the country, is to overhaul the country’s bus network, or as he puts it ‘bus back better’.
Calling out the ‘stagnation’ of the country’s bus networks he has pointed to a situation where reduced bus lanes have led to slower, more expensive and unattractive services, ‘a classic vicious circle that we intend to break’ he has said.
In order to do so, in March the government announced a national bus strategy and a £3bn fund to revitalise the public transport networks across the country, calling on local authorities to devise new bus service improvement plans and create new partnerships with operators, taking over the timetables and ticketing in a bid to make services more attractive to passengers.
We look at the plans submitted recently for Northamptonshire
Long journey times, reduced routes, poor evening and weekend services, high prices and frequent cancellations are dominant features of the current bus transport landscape in Northamptonshire.
Despite a rise in population with housing estates expanding by the day, passenger journeys across the county are currently at around 11 million a year, from a high of 20 million in 2012, as the issues listed above see travellers increasingly opt for the less eco-friendly car for work, school or leisure purposes.
The result is more congestion on the roads - traffic modelling from a decade ago suggested that by 2021 some journey times between towns such as Corby and Kettering would have increased by a quarter.
Tasked with turning this situation around and in the aftermath of the pandemic (which has seen passenger journeys return to only 65 per cent of what they were pre-covid) two new bus service improvement plans have been devised for the country’s new unitary councils, which have each agreed to set up an enhanced partnership with bus operators, getting more involved with the routes, the schedules and the costs of the services that operate across the county.
The headline from the two 40 page documents that were submitted to the government at the end of last month, is that the bus services cut during the county council’s 2018 financial crisis could be reinstated, with a dedicated bus subsidy put back into the new unitary councils budgets from April next year.
Subject to consultation, it looks like around £250,000 will be allocated by each unitary authority to reinstate some of the services, with the subsidy doubling the following year. The 2018 cuts saw seven services lost in the North area and nine in the West, with many villages cut off from an urban connection. However details about which ones might start up again are not detailed.
Other parts of the plan include:
Increasing bus passengers journeys from the 2018/19 levels by 50 percent to 26m a year - leading to an increased frequency of bus services (from 15 minutes to 10 minutes in some areas);
Introducing evening and weekend services to some existing bus routes;
Increasing the frequency of buses on some services;
Looking at the accessibility of tourism destinations through a bus service;
Setting up new bus routes to growing housing developments;
Developing new bus corridors between towns such as Corby and Thrapston;
Introducing a new grading system for roadworks to minimise disruption to services;
Introducing inter-operator ticketing and fare capping;
Increasing the number of services that link with the county’s rail stations;
Installing real time data bus stops at locations where there are none;
Gain funding for a feasibility study for electric or hydrogen vehicles;
Carry out an audit of all bus stops to assess whether they are safe and install lighting and CCTV where necessary;
Providing grants to smaller community transport operators.
Currently the majority of bus services that ferry passengers across the county are run by commercial operators, with Stagecoach the largest. Alongside this are some subsidised services - paid for by housing developer contributions, some parish councils and government grants - as well as a number of community transport schemes.
As part of the government’s national plan, large sums will be made available to revamp the system and as part of their new plans each authority is asking for just over £2m from government from April and a further £1m the following financial year. The money, if granted, (and there are no concrete details by the government of when) will be largely used to support the current operators struggling under the current passenger slump.
The issue is so severe that the West report says:
“the financial viability of current services is a risk. . . . there is insufficient funding currently available to sustain all of the Council’s current subsidised bus services to the end of the current financial year, and without further funding some of the services will have to be withdrawn, leading to communities losing their bus service if they are not commercially viable.”
Money will also go towards ticketing reform, bus stop upgrades and the feasibility studies.
The plans have largely been put together with little input from elected councillors. The West unitary’s cabinet had intended to approve its plan last month without seeing any details, instead suggesting delegating authority to its finance and transport portfolio holders to sign off in tandem with senior transport officers.
Cabinet member for transport, Cllr Phil Larrett, agreed the situation was ‘far from ideal’ but said the rush was down to the fact the work was being largely done by one officer, who was writing the plan for both unitary councils in contrast to other councils which had employed consultants to help out, an option he said the new unitaries could not afford.
But after the move was criticised by the Labour opposition with group leader Cllr Gareth Eales telling the executive that he ‘didn’t like the concept of a document like this being pulled together in a darkened room’, an eleventh hour working party of councillors from across the political parties was convened to look at the details and make suggestions.
In the North, the plan will only go before the council’s executive this morning, having been approved under emergency powers by the chief executive, as the bid submission went right down to the wire.
The bus service improvement plans, while welcomed, have been criticised by some for not being ambitious enough.
Cllr Emily Fedorowyz, leader of the Kettering Green Alliance on North Northamptonshire Council said:
“It is great to see the council’s bus strategy come together, and that they have built in electric buses and community transport into the proposal. Decarbonising our public transport sector will be key in the coming years and the sooner we can apply for funding to support this, the better. Community transport too is something that is urgently needed to connect our most vulnerable and isolated with their local amenities.
“A non-profit shuttle service would be a great interim solution to help residents get about when buses run too infrequently or not at all, as it is in many cases.
“Unfortunately the report eased on the targets for bus uptake when we need to be as ambitious as ever – in light of the current climate crisis, we need to be working to promote buses as much as possible and accelerating the transition. What we need to see is complimentary subsidies in the interim to make fares more affordable and a clear communication plan to help shift public mindset.”
Liberal Democrat Cllr Jonathan Harris, who represents Brixworth on West Northamptonshire Council and was part of the last minute working party that looked at the plan, says it is an improvement, but is not radical enough.
“I don’t think it has gone far enough. We are obviously still suffering from the legacy of the cuts. It is a step in the right direction but it will depend on whether we get the funding from government. And there are concerns about when we may get the funding as if it is not until March or April that will put pressure on current services.”
“It is just not radical enough. We have the technology these days to go down an Uber type route. The mechanics are there to be a lot cleverer about routing.”
Current bus issues
A quick look at the Twitter feed of Stagecoach Midlands shows a regular roll call of cancelled services in recent weeks. As reported by the Northants Telegraph the operator has acknowledged being affected by driver shortages and is trying to recruit new staff.
Palden Dorje, who cares for her autistic son, says since October 20 his bus journey to work from Northampton to the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal has been interrupted several times with the number 96 into Northampton failing to show up. This means her son has been late for work and has lost out financially. It has also caused him anxiety and on occasion he has had to leave his house a number of hours before he is due to start work, so he can ensure he arrives on time.
“I originally thought this issue was confined to a limited number of routes,” she says “but since checking on the (Stagecoach) Twitter page it is astonishing.
“The number of different bus routes affected is across the county and must be having a devastating impact on businesses whose staff can’t get to work, people attending medical appointments, kids getting to school, loss of income to those late for work, not to mention the negative impact of the mental health of people already suffering the consequences of Covid.
“There are safeguarding issues with leaving school kids abandoned at the road side, and ill people trying to attend appointments that if missed will be difficult to reschedule due to the current NHS crisis. This is a massive problem, as important as the lack of HGV drivers and carers yet there seems to be nothing happening.”
A Stagecoach spokesperson told us:
“Our teams are working incredibly hard to ensure we continue to run the vast majority of our timetabled services and we remain focused on prioritising the services we know are most important for our customers.
“As is the case with many organisations and sectors in the economy, the pandemic is continuing to impact our business. Issues such as Brexit and the DVLA taking longer to process bus driver licences has added to these challenges beyond our control.
“We are working round the clock to recruit people into our team and train them in the roles that we need, and we are seeing a strong demand for jobs. However, it takes an average of 10 weeks for a professional bus driver to be fully trained and any delays outside our control in the processing of licences means we cannot get them on the road on our network as fast as we would like.
“We apologise to our customers who have been affected by any short term service changes, and we would like to thank them for their patience with our frontline teams whilst we work to get our new drivers on the road.
“Where we do have to make changes to our bus services, we are providing live updates to our customers through our social media channels.”
The new plans do not reference these driver shortages, and so if they not resolved in the next six months they will impact on the delivery of its proposals.
As a rural county a significant number of residents live in villages, but many of these are without a regular bus service, and many without a bus service at all.
Cllr Jonathan Harris says improving the connectivity for the rural places he represents is a key mission for him, only recently receiving a letter from an 85 year old widow who after having to give up her car is now stranded, having to pay exorbitant taxi fees to travel.
He is hopeful he has now set up once a weekly service to run through Scaldwell, after liaising with a community bus operator.
“Bus services are essential for rural life,” he recently told the council’s executive meeting. “It is not a luxury, it is an essential.”
Conservative councillor for Duston Cllr Nigel Hinch also said at the same meeting he had heard people say they would have to leave their village if a bus service was not provided.
With no mention in the plans of new connectivity for the villages, these services may have to come from community transport operators and parish council collectives who group together to provide a service between their villages and the larger towns.
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