Stagecoach warns council tax bills could rise in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire after new report suggests bus franchising

Stagecoach has hit out against possible plans for bus franchising in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire by warning that it would lead to higher council tax bills.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 23rd January 2019, 3:28 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th February 2019, 6:41 pm
A Stagecoach bus in Peterborough
A Stagecoach bus in Peterborough

A new strategic bus review from the county’s mayoral authority has recommended an ‘Enhanced Partnership’ (EP) between itself and Stagecoach, the only significant bus operator in the area. This would see them work together on actions such as branding, tickets, real-time information and timetables.

The review, though, states that if the EP does not deliver the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority’s vision, the public body can undertake franchising. This would allow it “complete control” over how services are delivered in an area.

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Stagecoach East said it had made “significant investment” to deliver improvements such as greener buses, better value fares and contactless payments.

A spokesman said that franchising is only used in London, where it claims bus use has fallen and services are being cut. He added: “Under franchising, local taxpayers in Cambridgeshire would become responsible for the full cost of the bus network, which is currently 90% funded by bus operators, and it would inevitably lead to higher council tax bills.

“Partnership can deliver major investments and improvements far quicker and without the risk and unnecessary extra cost of franchising.”

However, Liberal Democrat group leader on Peterborough City Council Cllr Nick Sandford said he supported franchishing, and that Stagecoach’s “monopoly” was a problem.

He also criticised the review for a lack of consultation in Peterborough.

The combined authority said the review has seen input from many groups and stakeholders across its area, including feedback from user groups on the challenges they face with the current bus network.

A business case on the proposals is now hoped to be completed by January 2021.

The review states that: “Delivering enhanced bus services will require additional revenue funding support from the public sector, identification of additional revenue streams (e.g. workplace parking levy), a reduction in overall operating costs, or – most likely – a mixture of all three.”

One suggestion in the review is for an urban demand responsive transit (DRT), an ‘Uber for buses’, where passengers can request a bus pick-up using an app at a location convenient to them, rather than relying on conventional bus routes and stops.

The review states: “This solution would address concerns over infrequent or irregular bus service patterns and can help plug the gap in areas not best suited to conventional fixed route services”.

It says this idea could be used, among other places, in Norwood and Paston, Stanground and Hampton and Great Haddon.

The review also describes opportunities for the better integration of bus services with wider transport, including trains, demand-responsive services, park and ride, cycle hire, community transport and community car clubs.

The review adds that franchising “may be of particular value in rural areas”.

However, it warns: “It is highly unlikely that a franchising proposal could be sustained against a legal challenge if it hadn’t been adequately tested against an Enhanced Partnership alternative, so there is every incentive to start discussion of an Enhanced Partnership plan and schemes as soon as possible.”

It also warns that Stagecoach “orchestrated a robust campaign against a previous version of franchising” proposed in Tyne & Wear, and that it “should be anticipated that they would strenuously push back against franchising proposals in the CPCA area, and they are – of course – the overwhelming dominant operator”.

Mayor James Palmer, leader of the combined authority, said: “For decades bus services have lacked significant national, regional or local strategic leadership and vision.

“As a result, we have a bus service that is often not seen as an attractive option, is frequently in decline in rural or less prosperous areas, does not link key employment areas and is not properly integrated with other modes of transport. This has major social impacts and harms our prosperity.

“While the combined authority has, in isolated cases, stepped in to help keep certain services going, these sticking plasters are not sustainable. It is time to stop tinkering at the edges and reimagine what bus services should look like for the 21st Century.

“It is clear the vast majority of people in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough share this appetite for change.”

He added: “I am extending the offer to bus operators to work with us and share the vision and ambition needed to make the bus network in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough a model for others to follow.

“The potential is vast and exciting, but we must also be under no illusions as to how much work would be involved in delivering the change needed to our bus services. We have the potential to explore ways of improving bus services so far unseen across the UK, and within an accelerated timeframe.”

The combined authority is also seeking to implement a new taskforce involving itself, Peterborough City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council which would consider the findings of the review and develop a brief to use when engaging with bus operators to improve services.

A Stagecoach East spokesman said: “We have made significant investment in recent years to deliver greener buses, better value fares, modern contactless ticketing, real time information and better on board provision for customers. We are pleased the report recognises the bus network’s strong foundations in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region.

“But we agree that more can be done to improve services and maximise the power of the bus to driver economic growth and build stronger local communities. The report is absolutely right to recognise that the biggest challenge and barrier is road congestion and this is linked to declining air quality caused by too many cars on the road.

“Delivering a better bus network for our region is a shared responsibility between public transport operators, the mayor, the combined authority and other stakeholders. We are pleased that the report recognises that a partnership approach is the preferred way ahead.

“We need to focus on practical measures which will make bus services quicker, more attractive and more sustainable for the long term. The report rightly stresses the importance of bus priority measures, harnessing new technology and ensuring there is significant additional public investment in the bus network.

“We also support consideration of new solutions to address the specific challenge of connectivity in rural areas, which have been worst hit by cuts to council spending on buses.

“Franchising does not guarantee better bus services or more use of public transport. The only place in the UK where a franchising system operates is in London where bus use has fallen six per cent in the past three years, Transport for London is facing a £700 million deficit and many bus services are now having to be cut.

“Under franchising, local taxpayers in Cambridgeshire would become responsible for the full cost of the bus network, which is currently 90 per cent funded by bus operators, and it would inevitably lead to higher council tax bills.

“Partnership can deliver major investments and improvements far quicker and without the risk and unnecessary extra cost of franchising.

“We look forward to studying the recommendations in the report in detail and working closely with the mayor and the combined authority to give Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, its economy and its communities, the dynamic bus network needed to grow our world-class city region.”