Members have requested an urgent update on the various ongoing issues with bus services in the county.
Report to follow
5.1 Tom Main, Transport Operations Manager, gave an overview of this report and Members noted the following:
· The bus network in general was a mixture of commercial, services that did not need any council authority to run and just needed to be registered with the Traffic Commissioner, and subsidised services, these were the non-commercially viable services which the council currently spent around £5m per year plus £6m per year reimbursing operators for concessionary fare passes.
· At the height of the Pandemic, passenger usage was about 5% of pre-Covid level. There had been a significant recovery since then but on average, services had recovered about 70-80% of its passengers. This coupled with, inflation, increase in fuel costs and driver availability, had led to growing pressure on operators to remain viable.
· The revenue gap due to the Pandemic had been contributed to by the Government via support grants in order to avoid a drastic loss in services that would have otherwise occurred.
· Part of the response from Stagecoach, the major local operator, was to scale back their offering and cancel services. This would then enable them to reallocate drivers onto the more commercial routes and thus improve their reliability for passengers.
· It was stressed that at no point had GCC supported these changes, officers had highlighted from the beginning that the proposed scaling back of services would have a significant impact on communities in Gloucestershire.
· But unfortunately, the council could do nothing to prevent Stagecoach from making these changes, as long as they gave the required notice period to the Traffic Commissioner.
· Having been made aware of the proposed changes, Officers at GCC acted quickly to carry out an informal procurement exercise to gauge the market. They received 1 bid out of the 13 contracts they advertised. Unfortunately, the difficultly of this market was a countrywide issue, councils were having to pay more for the same services and replacement operators were hard to come by due to the severe driver shortage.
· Once the full documentation was received from Stagecoach outlining the withdrawals, the council attempted another procurement exercise to replace the lost services and received only 3 bids out of 13 contracts.
· Officers had worked very hard since to secure a further 4 contracts. They felt the position as it stood was GCC providing emergency and temporary cover.
· In October, GCC launched two pilot transport schemes call ‘The Robin’, an attempt to try something different on rural transport. The trials would form part of a business case for potential future expansion.
· Members would be aware that the council’s Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) funding bid in 2021 was unsuccessful, along with 70% of other councils. Officers continued to work closely with DfT to review the feedback and enhance the BSIP in preparation for any future funding opportunities, with a full review planned for 2023.
· There was also the creation of an Enhanced Partnership which was an agreement between council and public transport operators in the county on how they will work together, creation of forums and board to assist that etc.
5.2 All members paid their thanks and appreciation to officers for their tireless hard work during the Stagecoach withdrawal and for reaching a position of 350,000 services being supported for the time being.
5.3 A member questioned whether, looking at longer term aspirations, the council had considered applying for the franchising scheme under the Bus Services Act 2017, which would allow additional powers to control the bus network in these circumstances. It was advised that during the Bus Back Better project, the question was asked of all local authorities whether they had an Enhanced Partnership arrangement or franchising, every single rural authority had gone with the first route. GCC’s understanding at the moment was only the larger metropolitan areas franchised due to the significant costs required to set it up (in the £100s of millions).
5.4 Officers acknowledged that Stagecoach had a very large proportion of the network procured to them and in situations like this, it worked against the council. Although stressing how difficult the market was at the moment, they were very pleased to see a number of other companies agreeing to come back or starting new in the county and hoped to have a much more competitive and balanced network in the future as a result. It was suggested that councils may want to consider referring the bus market to the Competition of Markets Authority for a formal investigation.
5.5 Of the 500,000 journeys withdrawn by Stagecoach, GCC had to date managed to save 350,000 which left an estimated 150,000 journeys which would either be completely lost or would suffer a reduction in frequency. All the routes GCC have managed to replace had been subsided by the council, regardless of whether they were previously subsidised or commercially available routes.
5.6 It was stressed that GCC, in this case and in many others, was not the statutory provider ‘of last resort’ but could be if it chose to and could afford to be. There remained a number of holes in the programme of services that had been, or were due to be withdrawn, with no alternative offers on the table. Officers could not give specifics at the moment, as all efforts had been focused on the imminent changes but now they had reached a relatively stable position, they would look towards the next round of withdrawals due for February 2023. Buses like the K and E loop in Cheltenham would need to be assessed, as with all other routes, to understand whether it was viable for the council to procure and retain them as they were.
5.7 Acknowledging that the issue of infrequent and unreliable services had been ongoing for some time prior to the withdrawal notification. Members questioned whether there was any mechanism of recouping costs for services not adhered to. Officers advised that they could not do so against any commercial services that failed to turn up as timetabled, but they had as much as possible tried to do so for any subsidised services. This had also led to the decision of the Council to report Stagecoach to the Traffic Commissioner, it was felt that as a private company who took £7.1m of public money via GCC, Stagecoach had not exercised the responsibility to the public that this came with.
5.8 Members shared frustration on behalf of their constituents of the timings these changes were communicated, the lack of opportunity to advocate for services to be saved and the services that formed part of the 150,000 potentially lost. It was felt that Members should be advised at the earliest opportunity, even when such things were only a risk, in order to better prepare and represent their communities.
5.9 These comments were noted and appreciated but felt they could only be directed at Stagecoach themselves, not officers at GCC who had worked tirelessly to recover from an impossible situation. It was shared that Stagecoach had informal conversations with GCC twice in August but provided no firm proposals or action at that point. In early October they then, very suddenly, issued a 42-day notice via the Traffic Commissioner for all the withdrawn services. They also ignored the advisory 4 week notice period (prior to the 42-day statutory) to allow local authorities sufficient time to consider replacements, arguing that the informal conversation in August should have been enough to trigger preparation.
5.10 Looking towards future funding in this area, it was advised that the current Covid support funding for public transport was due to end in April 2023 and officers awaited the announcement on anything further. They felt confident however that Government had recognised the ongoing challenges for public transport provision and felt there was a show of an appetite to change and tackle these issues via the launch of the BSIP funding opportunity in 2021. Aside from Government funding, the Council continued to work very hard in-house to address challenges and were due to do a piece of work on market engagement and development. It was stressed however that these issues would not hinder the council’s ambitions on transport decarbonisation.
5.11 Examining details of The Robin initiative, Members were informed that GCC had entered into an agreement with Lincolnshire County Council to provide a call centre option as an alternative to using the app to pre-book. Noting the need for flexibility as there were no set journey times, it was suggested that over time data would start to identify regular requested journey times and plot the most efficient route. There was also a suggestion of looking into providing alerts on the app that a pre-booked service was due so other users could join relatively last minute.