In summary: To cope with government cuts the council budget, agreed by all parties, included the need to find a saving from the bus subsidy budget. Combined with the pressure of increasing fuel costs and a government cut to bus operator subsidy this made for a challenging, pressured issue.
Strictly speaking the law requires bus companies to not run any routes or parts of routes which are unprofitable. This was probably intended to prevent anti-competitive ‘loss-leader’ services by one company to undercut another. The result however is that some routes don’t operate without a council subsidy.
Two key issues at hand were school bus routes, some of which were costing the council over £1,000 per child per year (plus the £240/year parents pay for a pass) while child numbers are declining and also some non-school routes which were costly to keep going.
As we have long said, we are working on alternative approaches to school transport. So yesterday Greens proposed, and the committee agreed, that we procure one year contracts for services on the 74 and 96 school routes. These will be for smaller vehicles under more flexible terms which we estimate will be half the cost of the services as they were currently run. These will be funded from one-off funds.
For the other services, as I have said many times, only by proceeding with the procurement as we did last month could we flush out which services could continue commercially, without subsidies. It was a strong approach which has shown that a number of evening services will now continue without council taxpayer support.
The one change to the services previously run is the 52 route which will now terminate at the Marina. There was also a very unfortunate administrative error which resulted in one route being given to the incorrect operator – that is being corrected, and everything has been reviewed by senior officers to ensure it’s all now proper and correct.
Still now with the information we have from the commercial bus companies, which was only possible by the approach we took, we are in a position to keep services going on all routes that were previously subsidised but with a saving of £230,000 per year.
The opposition, particularly the Labour group, have been continuing to claim that they did ‘deals’ with the largest bus company to ‘save’ routes and also that their ‘campaign’ including a petition had pressured us into changes. This continues to be complete nonsense. We said we’d do what we have, and we have. No deals have been done with the bus companies – Roger French has made absolutely clear that there hasn’t been a deal. Indeed it wouldn’t be legal, the bus companies have to make their own commercial decisions on which routes they run. The remainder have been procured through EU rules.
Both opposition parties have been in administration and know the way you have to negotiate procurements with bus companies, as we have successfully done. Their comments and campaigning indicate that they are either naive over these processes or being intentionally misleading about how they work. Either way it’s not good for them. They’ve been completely wrong-footed by our actions.
So let’s remember, we’ve delivered on what we said we do and all the services keep running with a significant saving for council tax payers.