On Wednesday Chancellor George Osborne took a break from mooching about on a building site in his hi-vis jacket and entered the House of Commons Chamber to deliver his long awaited and much feared Comprehensive Spending Review.
We were expecting the worst with rumours suggesting that the entire Central Government funding for buses, the £230 million Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG), could be cut entirely. When coupled with the near certain reduction in funding for Communities and Local Government, meant that this was set to be a particularly brutal day for our most cherished mode of public transport. Amazingly the expected cut never came and BSOG has been protected from further reductions. This is a truly fantastic result and tantamount to a lot of hard work from many people, so thank you to all who supported the campaign!
The Save our Buses team has been campaigning tirelessly for over 4 months to make the case for protecting BSOG in the Spending Review, working with volunteers; mobilising a coalition of charities, NGOS and trade unions; building an evidence base and identifying and lobbying friendly MPs to support our campaign.
How exactly did we do it?
With every campaign we have to identify a clear aim, what exactly are we campaigning for, which for this campaign was easy: to save BSOG from any further cuts. Cuts to BSOG coupled with the current financial situation faced by local authorities would be devastating for many bus services and we would start to see entire bus networks disappear, with smaller bus companies and the passengers who rely on them hit hardest.
We then had to come up with some achievable but ambitious actions to fulfil our objectives of making the social, economic and environment case for buses, highlighting the current plight of local buses and influencing key 'decision makers'. These actions included: writing a detailed joint MP briefing with our close allies from the bus and transport industries Greener Journeys and Pteg, focussing on the value of BSOG. This was then sent to a targeted group of over 200 MPs across different parties before the Summer recess.
We then launched a supporter action asking you to write to the Chancellor demanding he protect BSOG from further cuts in the Spending Review, which you did in your droves! By this Wednesday over 1,200 of you had sent emails, an absolutely fantastic response!
We also realised quite quickly that we needed an evidence base to highlight the plight of local buses across the UK. To fulfil this we made a full and comprehensive response to the Government's Spending Review Consultation, covering all things transport and brought forward our annual 'Buses in Crisis' research project so we could publish it before the Spending Review.
The Buses in Crisis report was vital at setting the scene and painting a very clear picture of local authority bus funding across England and Wales. The benefit of having done this research for 5 years is we can use our resources and knowledge in a much more targeted way, and we did this by meeting MPs who have constituencies we know to be in areas affected by bus cuts. The report also got some decent media coverage before the Spending Review which helped get the message across.
We met as many backbench MPs as we could in a fairly short time frame and at the meetings we took them through our BSOG briefings and previous 'Buses in Crisis' reports and asked them to support our campaign and make representations to the Chancellor. Increasing local pressure from campaigners and constituents means that buses are rapidly rising up the political agenda and we know that specifically because of this a number of backbenchers raised buses with the Chancellor in meetings.
Local bus campaigners were instrumental in supporting our BSOG campaign with a number coming to Westminster to lobby their MPs directly and others doing so in their local areas. Brilliant campaigners in Hertfordshire also set up a last minute street stall in Stevenage and Hitchin asking the public to sign letters to the Chancellor, collecting over 400 letters in one day!
This is the second time in two years that we have had to launch a campaign to save BSOG after it was threatened in the 2013 Spending Round. This proves just how perilous bus funding is and we are becoming increasingly concerned how buses seem to be 'fair game' when national and local government make cuts.
Well for now we need to take some time to celebrate and reflect on what has been a successful team effort to save BSOG from more cuts. There is however a danger that this is a pyrrhic victory due to the Hi-Vis Chancellor effectively announcing the phasing out of local authority grants and for them to be replaced with income from local business rates. This change seriously risks leaving poorer, rural areas worse off and favouring already wealthy areas, meaning the future funding of local authority supported buses is bleak and uncertain. What is certain though is that we will not stop in our quest to ensure buses get the funding they need, and recent announcements from Oxfordshire and Lancashire County Councils ensure we will redouble our efforts.
For the time being - our attention now turns to the Government's Buses Bill which is due to begin its Parliamentary journey in Spring 2016. The bill is intended to complement the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill which will give new executive powers to cities like Manchester with the creation of new directly elected Mayors. Under the Buses Bill the mayors, and other authorities like Cornwall where devolution deals are agreed, will then have the potential to implement ‘London style’ franchising over local buses.
The Buses Bill is potentially a great opportunity for passengers to see improvements in their bus services, and for buses to play a wider environmental role. We therefore want to see the Bill maximise modal shift from cars to buses, in rural areas as well as in cities, and promote the implementation of socially important measures like reduced bus fares for young people and part time workers. More and more people are seeing the Buses Bill as an opportunity not a threat and we must grasp it with both hands.
For now though on behalf of all of us in the Save Our Buses Team and indeed all staff at Campaign for Better Transport , thank you for your constant and unwavering support. This is YOUR victory, we simply could not achieve any campaign success without you!