26 March 2012: There are thousands of parish, borough and town councils up and down the country, and there are millions of bus users in market towns and rural villages who are being hit hard by devastating bus cuts. But what can these councils do, if anything, to help?
Buses are facing a funding crisis caused by Government cuts to support for public transport. Parish councils of course do not have budgets to provide the public services that County Councils should take responsibility for. However, parish councils do have community links and local knowledge that is invaluable for good public transport provision.
Here are some examples of what parish, borough and town councils can do to help relieve the impact of bus cuts:
• If a bus is busy and commercially viable it does not need to be propped up by public funds. The key is getting more people on the bus. Local councils with local knowledge are in a good position to identify those buses which could be made busier and profitable. Perhaps the bus route should be tweaked to make it more popular? Or maybe a promotion or advertising drive is needed? Local communities in many parts of the country have successfully run ‘use it or lose it campaigns’.
• ‘Use it or lose it campaigns’ can be great if you think your bus might be cut in say six months time. However if the bus is going to be cut very soon you need to buy some more time. Some operators have been persuaded to take the commercial risk of continuing a bus service for a trial period. Firms are much more likely to be do this if they are persuaded that the ‘Use it or lose it campaign’ will be strong and backed by local councils.
• If the bus operator cannot be persuaded to help voluntarily, local councils along the route could club together to underwrite the cost of the subsidy to keep the bus on the road for the trial period. We have seen this happen in Selby and Herefordshire. In some cases just a few hundred pounds have been paid by each parish council to keep a bus running for six months. The important thing is choosing a bus that is potentially a profit maker, and working hard to get more passengers on the bus.
• Where a commercial bus operator withdraws a service it is worth approaching other firms as well as not for profit companies and community transport schemes. County Councils can bid for Community Transport Funding from the Government, but they may need a push in the right direction.
• A campaign that stops a bus cut in the first place is of course better than a campaign to reinstate a bus. So Parish councils should get actively involved in campaigning at an early stage. Some buses will never turn a profit, but should continue to run with the help of County Council support because they provide a life line service. Advice and resources for Save our Buses campaigns can be downloaded here.
A case in point with a happy ending comes from John Cattanach; a District Councillor who discovered that his local evening and Sunday bus serving the area around Selby was going to be cut following a decision by North Yorkshire County Council. He gathered together local parish councils and persuaded them to reinstate the bus service for a trial period by underwriting the cost. The plan only worked if they could get more fare paying passengers on the bus.
John explains, “I have a very good friend in the village who is a graphic artist and very community minded. She produced some beautiful artwork for the ‘use it or lose it campaign’. Parish councils paid for the printing of a leaflet which was distributed to about 90% of the households in the parishes along the route. I had 2500 printed for around £110. Our local newspapers were keen to run good news stories especially when we provided pictures. We have a local radio presenter who lives in the village who will do his best to publicise the service coming back.
We were delighted when our hard work paid off and the bus operator agreed to run the evening bus service without subsidy. The Sunday service will continue to run but will again be underwritten by the parishes. My aim now is to to get this Sunday bus run commercially as well. The next stage of the campaign involves getting local businesses to donate prizes that we gave to bus passengers. These include things like free pub meals and tickets for local tourist attractions. Again this has been a media hook for local journalists. I am even hoping to get beermats printed.”
As a Councillor I was in a good position to help, and I already had a constructive relationship with our local bus company. I have not been afraid to praise or chastise the company in the media. Also, I did my research and found out about additional grant that the County Council was making available for projects like ours. It is worth looking to the voluntary and private sector as well as you might find backers or funding in unusual places.”
The success of the campaign in Selby is testament to partnership working, and if your local bus in under threat it shows it is worth thinking creatively about solutions.