Shepway’s bus crisis: What can be done?

July 14, 2018

There is a huge amount of anger about cuts to local bus services. These are unlikely to be reversed but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do to restore vital local transport links.  Martin Whybrow, local Green Party County Councillor, issues a rallying cry to anyone who’d like to help.

If you wanted to know how high passions are running over local bus services then you only needed to attend last Thursday’s KCC-hosted “Big Conversation” event. It was standing room only as 200+ crammed into the village hall at St Mary’s Bay. And from the start, local residents used the opportunity to voice their anger about Stagecoach’s recent cuts and changes.

We heard from parents with kids who couldn’t get to and from school (particularly the Marsh Academy). A local business owner in New Romney explained how damaging it is for her and other retailers that no buses now run down the High Street. We had people who now took (literally) hours to get to and from work. And many elderly people told how they were isolated by the cuts, particularly struggling to make GP and hospital appointments (the termination of the number 11 service in the centre of Ashford was mentioned a lot for anyone trying to access the William Harvey Hospital).

Time and again, residents complained about the lack of consultation and failure of Stagecoach to respond to letters and emails.

How did we get here?

For reasons of mental and physical health and wellbeing, as well as reducing congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions, everything should be done to encourage use of public transport. No surprise that this is Green Party policy. However, in this country we seem to be heading in the wrong direction.

How did it come to this?

Since deregulation in the mid-1980s, local authorities have had no control over bus operators, who make decisions purely based on profit and return to their shareholders.

In the past, where there has been the threat of withdrawal of bus services, local authorities have evaluated these and have had the option to provide subsidies to keep them running. These are deemed “Social Necessary Bus Services” and, in Kent, around three per cent of services are currently subsidised. In addition, KCC funds over 252,000 concessionary travel bus passes for elderly and disabled residents and supports transport for 32,000 young people through the16+ travel bus pass.

It is a statutory duty of a local authority to consider subsidising routes; it is not a statutory duty to actually do so. And it is an interesting business model for bus operators, where they can merrily run profitable routes and gain financial help for unprofitable ones – a win/win situation for them. Shouldn’t running profitable and loss-making services be part and parcel of providing an overall service?

Last year, KCC spent £64.2m on providing transport services, with £7m of this on direct bus subsidies. In a short-lived, chaotic episode earlier this year, KCC announced its intention to consult on reducing that figure by £4m and listed the 74 services around the county that would be hit as a result.

The backlash was such that the leader of the council directly intervened, the cabinet member for Environment & Transport lost his position, and KCC embarked on the “Big Conversation”, with meetings such as the one at St Mary’s Bay taking place across the county.

It is fair to say that the one for Shepway was far better attended than any other to date and far more, shall we say, challenging for the KCC team that was presenting and running it. This surely reflects the extent to which we have been hit hard by Stagecoach’s recent cuts (I also attended the first of these, in Dover).

KCC’s plans

At the events KCC is seeking to present its ideas for better use of its bus-related funding, including smaller vehicle feeder services that link to current routes, thereby rebuilding connections particularly for rural services (although taking a broad definition of ‘rural’); ‘taxi buses’ that would collect groups of people; and on-demand services, summoned via phone or app.

There were some contentious points, particularly around whether residents would be willing to pay for such new services – in other words, such services would not necessarily be covered by existing travel passes. This caused angry exchanges but the officers emphasised that the whole exercise was to consult and to understand what is – and isn’t – acceptable.

And at the end of the day, all of this has come to a head because of the sustained attack on local government budgets by central government, with over 40% cut over the last six years and with no end in sight, at a time when demand from social care in particular only increases. It is important that residents consider the root cause – ideologically driven austerity by a Tory government that, probably in many cases, they continue to vote for.

What can be done?

Each of the three ideas put forward by KCC has some merit and there are examples of them working well elsewhere in the country. While much of the Stagecoach-related anger was unreasonable to direct at KCC, it is certainly the case that KCC could and should have been seeking much earlier to head off the issues, look at new models and aid would-be new providers to generate competition to the country’s two main bus operators, not wait until we reach crisis point.

KCC is an extremely car-centric authority, where public transport has for too long been the poor relation, and this urgently needs to change.

Meanwhile, what can be done to help with some of the very real day-to-day issues that people are now facing?

Well, KCC continues to meet and lobby Stagecoach and Arriva and there were repeated assurances at the meeting that the general and specific points raised would be taken back in no uncertain terms to Stagecoach. But if the operator really cared what people thought, would it not attend these meetings itself, at least as an observer?

Residents should seek to keep up the pressure on Stagecoach, with letters, emails, via the press and social media.

KCC should also take a look at what it can do to help other operators to set up. For one thing, it has a huge amount of data related to where people want to move around the county. Here – and across many other areas – it could openly publish this data (with personal details removed, of course) to help anyone considering setting up a new bus services to decide if there is the demand and, therefore, a business case. Neighbouring Essex County Council is far ahead of KCC in its provision of open data and, not coincidentally, is far more innovative.

Community-led services  

But rather than waiting for the operators or authorities, we should also look at whether community-led services can have a role to play in filling in the gaps. There are community vehicles round the area that are standing idle for much of the day so could these, combined with volunteer qualified drivers, underpin services that could be funded and are sustainable? Again, there are good examples of this.

In 2006 a group of people in Brighton got together in a pub to discuss public transport and decided to set up a Community Interest Company to provide affordable and environmentally-sustainable bus services in the local area. Soon afterwards The Big Lemon (right) was born and it now operates six local services in the Brighton area and a wide variety of coach services both locally and nationally.

And it’s green! Originally running all the buses on recycled waste cooking oil from local restaurants, The Big Lemon launched the UK’s first solar-powered electric bus in 2017 and it is now converting its entire bus fleet to electric. Electricity to power the buses is provided by solar panels on the roof of the bus depot.

And The Big Lemon provides a free downloadable guide, plus training and mentoring, to other communities that want to establish services.

There is no doubt that new models of public transport are the way forward, whether enabled by new technology, empowered by communities, or supported by a redirecting of local authority subsidies. We need to look forward, not back, and to ensure that the tide of cuts is reversed.

 

If you are interested in forming a working group to look at community-led schemes in Shepway, please make contact – let’s reconnect our communities. Contact Martin on 07727 185385 or martin_whybrow@yahoo.co.uk

 

 

 

 

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