Derbyshire County Council should choose a different route

This blog first appeared on 27 February 2016 and has been published, in edited form, in the 9 March 2016 edition of Route One magazine, route-one.net:

Derbyshire County Council (DCC) are looking to withdraw all funding for all supported bus services, with the exception of school buses which they are legally obliged to provide under the 1985 Transport Act. They say budget cuts imposed upon them from central Government leaves them with no choice.

The following is taken from their website: “Local residents are being asked their views on proposals to stop paying for local bus services and community transport to help us deal with the biggest budget cuts in our history. By 2020, the funding we get from central government is expected to be more than a third less than in 2010.”

“This means we need to review what we spend on paying for local bus services which don’t carry enough passengers to be run commercially (subsidised buses). We’re also reviewing the amount of money we give to Derbyshire’s six community transport schemes to run Dial-a-Bus (DAB) ‘shopping buses’. We’re already scaling back on our support for DAB services meaning that from this year we will fund one of these trips a week for every community, town or village, to a nearby town centre or supermarket. Some areas currently have several services a week.”

“But we are now putting forward further proposals to help save £4.4 million on transport costs.”

Their proposals would see the withdrawal of all county council funding for subsidised buses from October 2017, and therefore unless they can be run commercially they will stop. They also plan to withdraw all county council funding for DAB services, meaning that unless they can be funded from elsewhere they too will stop. To mitigate these losses, DCC would provide £1.3 million for a new Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) service which would be available to all passengers, both those currently using subsidised buses and those using DAB, and also provide a new Door-to-Door Plus service for people who currently use DAB but would be unable to use the proposed DRT service.

A quick look at how DRT services work: intending passengers have to book their seat either by telephone or online, much like a taxi. They then wait for the bus to turn up at the place and time booked, much like a taxi, and are then taken to the shops before being taken home afterwards, much like…

Councillor Dean Collins, Cabinet Member for Highways, Transport and Infrastructure, said of the DCC proposals: “We are facing unprecedented cuts and must review all our services, particularly those, like subsidised buses and community transport, that by law, we do not have to provide.

“We know from previous consultations that public and community transport is vital to helping people get out and about, enabling them to maintain their independence and wellbeing, but unfortunately, the fact is, we just don’t have the money to continue funding these services to the level we have previously, so we need to look at running things differently.

“No decisions have yet been made on these latest proposals and I would encourage people to take part in this new consultation so we are well aware of the public’s view of our plans.”

The consultation will run for eight weeks until Sunday 24 April 2016. However, smack bang in the middle of this period something even more significant in terms of impacting upon local services is about to happen. Under something called the Devolution Deal, part of Chancellor George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” fairytale, all councils in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire – the city councils, borough councils, district councils and county councils – are expected to reach a deal in March, following negotiations with central Government the “North Midlands” devolution deal, also known as D2N2. As part of this it is intended to develop a North Midlands combined authority which would mean that decisions on and funding for services including public transport currently provided by Derbyshire County Council would stay in Derbyshire.

Whilst DCC laud this plan, claiming that as well as providing 55,000 new private sector jobs and building 77,000 extra homes, they would introduce “a better co-ordinated public transport system with ‘Oyster’ style smart ticketing that will help make sure communities are connected to jobs and training. The inevitable conclusion would be quality contracts and effectively re-regulation. All well and good and even nostalgic you might think. But since deregulation of bus services 30 years ago much has changed.

The promised revolution for bus networks and ticketing can work well in large cities such as London, but in shire counties like Derbyshire there are far smaller towns and villages, often served by single operators for the simple reason that there isn’t sufficient demand for a multi-operator high frequency network. Worse still, such schemes often result in cartels in all but name – Sheffield being a prime example – where two large operators (First and Stagecoach) effectively share the spoils between them, squeezing out small, independent operators who are more customer focused and offer a better standard of service with cheaper fares. With lower overheads these firms can continue to provide marginal services to areas which might not be satisfactorily profitable to the shareholders of the bigger companies, but are perfectly acceptable to your family run rural bus company. This would be lost.

DCC believe that their proposals are “the best option for Derbyshire to bring more money into the county, improve the economy and protect services in the future.” The plans also refer to a new “joint fund to spend on improving transport” whilst failing to mention that this refers to road infrastructure; not a single penny piece is promised towards supporting local bus services.

As if this wasn’t enough, Chesterfield Borough Council (CBC) are looking to bail out of the D2N2 scheme and instead join the new combined Sheffield City Region, which DCC object to, warning that if plans by CBC go ahead it will mean the biggest change to local government in Derbyshire for generations, meaning that “some key services in Chesterfield – Derbyshire’s largest town − would no longer be provided by Derbyshire County Council,” including public transport.

By now two things should have become apparent. Firstly, that DCC seem intent, come what may, to remove all funding – and responsibility – from local bus services. They’re simply not interested any more. Despite Councillor Collins’ words decisions have undoubtedly already been made and therefore secondly, the threat to supported services in Chesterfield is moot – they’re not going to exist anyway.

But rather than making party political capital at the expense of local bus services, surely there’s another way? DRT doesn’t work: they are inefficient, huge distances between the few passengers that use them meaning the exorbitant current subsidy of £24 per passenger for community transport would be peanuts. You’d have thought DCC themselves would know this following the last (and only) two DRT services they introduced, the Higham Connect and Hilcote Connect, both catastrophically expensive and unused failures swiftly replaced by a proper bus service, the 149 operated by G & J Holmes of Clay Cross.

Of course there is a better way. The subsidies DCC currently provide to local bus services works out at, on average, £1.19 per passenger. They could quite easily use the £1.3 million they are planning to throw at a crackpot DRT scheme to continue funding more the most used but still unprofitable services. In 2010 DCC held a similar consultation, requiring the buses budget to be cut by roughly a third. The same questionnaire was published along with a list of supported services. The original DCC proposal at the time, to withdraw all supported services where the subsidy worked out at more than £4 per passenger, was nodded through once the pantomime consultation dragged its way to the end. If DCC repeated the exercise but set the bar at the current average subsidy per passenger of £1.19 this would save the £1.3 million they’re planning for DRT.

However if for nothing other than to apportion blame for unnecessary service cuts on central Government they insist on cutting a full £4.4 million there are ways to breach the shortfall. When you first look at how local authorities receive funding aside from their grant from central Government, council tax and business rates come to mind. But councils throughout the county have already raised council tax by the maximum 2% allowed, and gave also opted for the additional 2% precept earmarked for social care. As for business rates, under plans announced by the Chancellor last October, although councils can cut rates they are not allowed to raise them, unless they are devolved cities with an elected mayor, and even then rates can only go up by 2% which must be ring fenced for capital projects. So what could be done?

Firstly, DCC could compel bus operators to charge commercial fares for schoolchildren on supported schools services, rather than the current 70p flat fare; the additional revenue of over £100,000 could be offset against the amount paid for the contracts.

Then take this a stage further and allow community transport schemes to charge 75% of the equivalent commercial taxi rate (the discount being exactly that offered to children under DCC’s b_line scheme), rather than a £3 standard fare. This would better reflect the cost of the journey being undertaken and also relate more closely to what the service actually is: a group hire taxi service. This would generate just over £300,000.

Introduce a 35p on-street departure charge (roughly the going rate for similar schemes) for bus services operating via or terminating in Derbyshire towns. This would share the burden between highly profitable services and other socially necessary ones. DCC provide bus priority measures and bus stops at effectively no charge to bus operators. There is precedent for this in council and PTE-run bus stations, and would be no different for charging for on-street car parking. In Chesterfield alone there are well over 6,000 departures every week and throughout the county this would raise £1.5 million.

Speaking of car parking the introduction of a 15% precept on car parking where fees are already charged, revenues from which would be clawed back from district and borough councils, would raise around £1.2 million.

And with all this, supported services that run across the county boundary would continue, and in turn DCC would still receive contributions from neighbouring local authorities to support these services of over £300,000.

And there’s the £4.4 million DCC want to keep bus services running. All figures are based on or taken from central Government and DCC websites along with Freedom of Information requests.

But having said all of that there is an even simpler way, which would relieve DCC of the logistical and administrative burden that supported bus services brings, and would genuinely ensure that local bus services continue to be provided where there is a clear demand. The £1.3 million earmarked for what would undoubtedly be an ill-fated DRT scheme should be diverted and used to more realistically reimburse operators for journeys made under the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme (ENCTS), a ludicrous idea implemented by Labour in 2007 giving virtually unlimited free bus travel to ten million people and reimbursing bus companies pennies in return. That is to say that currently, whenever a pensioner or disabled person boards a bus in Derbyshire (or anywhere) with a free bus pass, bus companies are not reimbursed the correct fare or even anywhere near it. They are paid about £1. That’s it. Even if the journey is 30 miles long and is totally unnecessary. And that is why not only are rural services more at risk under the politically motivated cuts that DCC seek to implement, but bus companies are not receiving what they should to contribute towards the running of what services do remain.

Despite their public service bleeding heart attitude, both locally and nationally Labour, through their “we know best” attitude of innovation-stifling regulation, continue to demonstrate their frightening lack of knowledge of the bus industry, risking isolating communities through political point scoring. It’s time they chose a different route.