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Wiltshire Council asks: how would you like your bus cut?

Former campaigner's picture
Photo by Kate Freeman from Devizes Passengers

Wiltshire Council is consulting the public on changes to subsidised bus services. Kate Freeman from Devizes Passengers has written this blog about her concerns for the future.

"People in Wiltshire are being asked how they would like their subsidised bus services to be cut. Would they like: 

  • All evening services after 7pm cut? (Saving: £639,000 a year)
  • All services on Sundays and Bank Holidays cut? (Saving: £165,000 a year)
  • Frequency of hourly services reduced by 50%? (Saving: £430,000 a year)
  • Frequency of rural buses reduced by 75%? (Saving: £1.19m a year)
  • Frequency of town buses reduced by 75%? (Saving: £460,000 a year)  
  • The nuclear option: reduce services by 100%? (Saving: £5.1m a year)

Wiltshire wishes to save at least £2.5m annually from its public transport budget in order to balance its books. The first five options combined would save around £2.8m a year... but would have a massive impact. 

That impact would not only be on bus users. From local businesses to tourists to other road users (buses are key to reducing traffic) such enormous cuts would impact on everyone. So please respond before 5pm on 4 April... but perhaps not before considering a discussion we wish to share with you!

Who are the vulnerable?

Wiltshire Council says that it aims to protect 'the vulnerable' as part of the bus cuts exercise.  We wondered who the vulnerable are.  Are they: 

  • The residents who would not be able to get to work in Swindon without that subsidised bus service on Sundays?  
  • The cook working in a rural pub?
  • The mobility impaired volunteer at Age UK?  
  • The isolated people who use the bus to play bingo, go swimming or attend U3A meetings? 
  • The youngsters who hang out with friends or attend training?  
  • The occasional users who share the household car?

Wiltshire has listed 'the vulnerable user' in its Equality Analysis Evidence Document (download this document), a score card that rates 'equality' groups including:

  • People on low incomes, unemployed people
  • People with mobility, sensory and mental limitations 
  • Older people, younger people 
  • Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities
  • Single parents
  • People who live in rural areas 
  • Gender groups, "women in particular"

By this definition, the majority of bus passengers are 'vulnerable users'. In fact, we would argue that with such devastating cuts on the horizon, we are ALL vulnerable.

Bus cuts: a perverse national outcome

Wiltshire is not alone in facing a massacre of bus services. So what is the Government doing about a fast growing national problem?  A ‘Buses Bill’ is imminent, intended to improve bus networks and grant new powers to franchise whole bus networks. Good. We can start to plan bus networks in the coherent manner we envy elsewhere in Europe.   
The anticipated fly in the ointment is that buses, unlike roads and rail, are not recognised as national infrastructure but regarded as an optional extra.  This is not the case in Flanders for instance where every community must have a minimum of an hourly bus service.  

Despite legal requirements to improve air quality, reduce CO2 emissions and fulfill strategic land use planning obligations, local authorities are perennially hamstrung without complementary statutory means to deliver a proper bus network that can fulfil these duties.  By contrast there is around £30 billion for road building in England.

Clearly the Buses Bill needs to go beyond powers to plan. Government needs to provide statutory minimum standards and a dedicated income stream for buses. One option is to charge for bus passes (with the usual exceptions). Use would continue to be free but the bus pass could be sold for £10 or £20 raising £50 or £100 million straight away. We know that pensioners would rather pay for the services than lose them. Another option is to give powers to local authorities to raise revenue locally.  Alternatively, parish councils, who have revenue raising powers, could be charged a transport levy by the local authority. These ideas would be effective but need strong support from central Government.

We will write to Andrew Jones, the Minister for Local Transport, asking him how he intends to support public transport for people living in rural authorities.

We will also point out that if the financial squeeze mortally wounds the bus network across a swathe of rural England by the time the Buses Bill receives Royal Assent this would be a singularly perverse outcome.

His email address is andrew.jones.mp@parliament.uk. Why don't you write as well?"

Blog by Kate Freeman from Devizes Passengers.

Respond to Wiltshire Council's consultation on the future of subsidised buses
Find out more about Devizes Passengers