To consider the attached report on the Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP+) funding.
Update reports on Mass Rapid Transport and Rail Services in Gloucestershire were recently considered at July’s Gloucestershire Economic Growth meeting. Please use the following links to view these:
Mass Rapid Transport: https://glostext.gloucestershire.gov.uk/documents/s93562/MRT_GEGSC_20July_v1.pdf
Minutes of the meeting: https://glostext.gloucestershire.gov.uk/documents/g11206/Printed%20minutes%20Thursday%2020-Jul-2023%2010.00%20Gloucestershire%20Economic%20Growth%20Scrutiny%20Committee.pdf?T=1
4.1 The Chair invited Tom Main, Integrated Transport Manager, to present this item. Members noted the written report, and a short verbal summary was given. The following points were noted:
· Bus services in the country were still operating around a 20-30% reduction on passenger numbers compared to pre-pandemic which represented a significant drop in revenue and in addition to increased costs to delivering bus services (fuel and employment).
· In 2023, on reviewing the long-term forecast for bus services in Gloucestershire, officers raised concern around the feasibility of continuing to support the existing network in amongst these rising cost pressures.
· In response to similar concerns across the country, Government announced the Bus Service Improvement Plan+ grant. The funding was aimed at protecting the bus network, preventing local authorities from making inevitable cuts and giving the opportunity to invest in new and improved services.
· Officers worked with the bus operators to put together a package of measures to best utilise this funding which was approved by Cabinet in September. A copy of the Cabinet report forms part of today’s report.
· The three areas of focus for the funding will be (further details are available in the report):
o Enhancement of evening and weekend services (this came out as the number one priority from the public engagement and traffic pattern research).
o Replacing services that were lost due to Stagecoach cuts earlier in the year.
o Addressing the rural transport challenges.
· Now the proposal had been approved by Cabinet, the next phase was procurement.
4.2 Members were updated that the Enhanced Partnership agreement had been agreed between GCC and the bus operators which set a strategic direction for the county’s bus services and areas to focus investment. The next step would be to establish the Enhanced Partnership Board and the stakeholder group which will be known as the Forum.
4.3 Due to the known recent issues with Stagecoach and other providers suffering from driver shortages and increased operational costs, officers were very aware that the biggest risk to mitigate was providers not coming forward to bid for these contracts. A lot of work had been done to raise awareness of the forthcoming contracts with operators, particularly with those who had been less engaged in previous years.
4.4 One of the sub-forums of the Enhanced Partnership will be a passenger experience working group which would look at ways to promote bus travel across the county, particularly on the BSIP+ supported routes which would need to prove to be commercially viable if they were to be sustained once thr grant funding came to an end.
4.5 Members noted that details around the new geographic areas for the Robin would be shared in due course as officers were still in the modelling phase. It was noted that the aim of the Robin was not to provide a commercially viable service but to deliver the most cost-effective way to deliver transport in rural areas, giving the widest geographic access as possible, rather than a structured bus timetable.
4.6 In terms of reinstating routes that had been lost due to Stagecoach cuts, the plus side of them now becoming subsidised by the BSIP+ grant meant the Council had more control over their management. Officers welcomed any comments from members on routes where they think improvements could be made but officers would in first instance take a lead as the Transport Authority in reviewing and replacing routes as appropriate. It would be vital to have these routes in the best position possible of becoming commercially viable again.
4.7 In response to concerns from members about what the longer-term plan was once the grant funding came to an end in 2025, Cllr Phil Robinson, Cabinet Member for Bus Transport, reiterated to members that the approach taken to allocate the BSIP+ funding constituted longer-term thinking as the 21 improvements identified in the Cabinet paper, had been chosen with a view of them becoming commercially viable by 2025, and therefore at that point being procured out to commercial providers. Officers advised that the long-term future of the bus services was constantly being discussed.
4.8 Members raised concern about procuring contracts back out to Stagecoach where they had made cuts earlier in the year, and also taking opportunities away from the smaller, local operators who had stepped up in light of these cuts. These frustrations were acknowledged but noted that officers were required to analyse all bids received and ensure public funds were being spent in the most effective way. It was reiterated that the providers for these contracts would be under a lot more scrutiny as they would be being subsidised by public funds and appropriate action would be taken should similar issues arise of buses not turning up, for example, as seen earlier in the year.
4.9 Another concern was raised about whether the two-year subsidy funding for these identified routes was sufficient to encourage private operators to invest in new infrastructure on the network. This point was raised particularly in relation to electric vehicles. Officers confirmed that realistically, the 2-year subsidy being provided by the grant would not encourage a 7-year investment in a new vehicle from operators on these routes, but it may balance their risk and result in more investment on their commercially viable routes, for example. In addition, the Council were currently working on a bid for ZEBRA which was a national zero emission bus grant and were working with operators to identify routes to support their bid.
The Chair thanked members and officers for their attendance and input at this additional Joint Scrutiny meeting today.