Metro Mayor says Bus Reform Group will improve services in ‘long term’

A new group will put bus services under the microscope.A new group will put bus services under the microscope.
A new group will put bus services under the microscope.
Metro Mayor James Palmer has outlined how he plans to improve bus services across Peterborough and Cambridgeshire with a new Bus Reform Task Force.

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CaPCA), mayor has explained why bus reform is vital to the future transport policy for the region.

Speaking after the announcement that the Bus Reform Task Force which he chairs, is to re-commence working towards a post-COVID, well-functioning, integrated transport network, Mayor Palmer, said: “Everybody knows the transport solution we have at the moment is inadequate for what people want and for what the CaPCA aspires to for Cambridgeshire.

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“We simply have to improve the bus network and that is what the Bus Reform Task Force was all about when it was originally set-up.

“Of course, that was before Covid-19. Nobody could’ve imagined the impact of a worldwide pandemic such as coronavirus and how it’s affected people who already struggled to find transport solutions from rural areas into work, to health centres or just to visit family and friends.

“With more and more people working from home now we have to take into account the different world that many are facing right now and for the foreseeable future.

“The money that we’re spending will look into all the potential solutions available, not so much for a quick fix, but for a long-term answer that’ll bring passengers back to the busses because they will provide the transport network that is wanted.

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“The CaPCA Board members took the decision to allocate the £1.2m of funding for this project at their meeting (September 30).

“The next step is to decide on the specific trials that will be funded, and that work is going on now.

“Those details will be reported to the early November meeting of the Transport Committee in just over a month’s time.”

In approving that £1.2m budget provision set out in the Medium-Term Financial Plan (MTFP), the money will be used to fund a series of short-term innovation trials to inform and determine subsequent reform proposals.

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The detailed allocation of the budget for these trials will be reported back to Paul Raynes, the Director of Delivery and Strategy who, in consultation with Mayor Palmer’s Task Force, will report back to the Transport and Infrastructure Committee.

When it comes to local transport plans, including the reform of bus routes and services, Combined Authorities like the CaPCA have the right to determine transport spending.

However, recent experiences have shown how getting things done requires a good deal of consensus, and where different views are expressed then the implementation of schemes and even the direction for improvement, is often compromised.

Cambridgeshire is a good example of this with both Cambridge and Peterborough expanding at phenomenal rates, making their transport plans key to successful economic development.

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In addition to CaPCA working with Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council, there are other interests to consider: Cambridge won £400m of government ‘City Deal’ funding to spend on housing, skills and infrastructure (including transportation).

This resulted in an overlay of partnerships including the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP), the local body set up in 2013, to deliver the City Deal project which, along with the CaPCA and both councils, are all liaising to decide how best to spend the money.

The result has been the much-maligned CAM Metro project which, despite being nearly six years in the planning, has yet to see a single improvement made.

Engineer and writer, Gareth Dennis who specialises in transport systems and is Director of Consultancy at Permanent Rail Engineering, said of the CAM Metro: “The unit cost of €92m/km is far greater than that of the London Crossrail project, which is mad if you consider the specification of the two systems.”

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Mayor Palmer has also made it very clear that he doesn’t agree with everything that’s been going on, launching a series of scathing attacks on the GCP in recent months suggesting their plans “…risk significant delays and waste public expenditure in contentious legal proceedings”.

As a result, instead of following an agreed course, politics takes over bringing with it much wasted time and wasted public money, as well as the inevitable legal challenges and the consequent bitterness that entails.

Mayor Palmer added: “The CaPCA is the body responsible for the transport infrastructure in Cambridgeshire – that’s simply the way things are.

“Lately, relationships with the GCP have improved following government instruction that forced them to accept me as a board member. The bottom line has always been that we have to work together as any funding for bus reform will inevitably dovetail with the CAM Metro project.

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“I just want to get things moving again in the right direction – and as soon as possible.”

But why are rural bus services in  decline if reformed transport plans that include buses are so crucial to the economic future of Cambridgeshire’s harder to reach communities, as well as its growing cities?

Claire Walters, Chief Executive of the charity ‘Bus Users’, said: “There’s an irony to having an historic transport strategy favouring the car over the bus, especially when congestion and pollution are now so high on the political agenda.

“Government policy is only now just beginning to view the car as part of the problem; while a single bus with the capacity to take up to 75 cars off the road, is most definitely a part of the solution.

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“When short-term ‘savings are so heavily outweighed by long-term costs, cutting bus services is the very definition of a false economy.

“In fact, these costs are greater still when taking into account the net contribution that buses make to the economy.

“Therefore, the recent announcement by Chancellor Sajid Javid of a national bus strategy and funding of £220m for bus services and infrastructure, can’t come soon enough.

“Over the past few decades, bus operators have been battling a perfect storm: the costs of running services, especially insurance, wages and fuel have all been going up and up; but despite being the most used form of public transport, bus passenger numbers are falling each year.

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“Between 2017, and 2018, passenger journeys in England were down by 85 million to 4.36 billion, and in rural areas, where bus dependency is highest, bus mileage fell by 6% between 2011/12, and 2016/17, while funding has been cut by 45% between 2010, and 2017.

“The impact of transport poverty in these rural areas is devastating causing inequality, isolation and loneliness, as well as attracting all of the associated social and economic costs.

“These problems have been compounded by decades of austerity that have seen the closure of vital local services like GP surgeries, the centralisation of health and education services, and a failure to invest in affordable housing in the places where these services exist.

“Without access to bus services, and already disadvantaged by the lowest average workplace-based earnings, people in rural areas have even fewer options when it comes to education and further study, including access to work, experience placements and jobs with unsocial hours and weekend working.”

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A new report from the DfT has said: “Bus services have been declining across England for 70 years. That decline has continued following deregulation with only a few local authorities managing to buck the trend.

“However, government recognises that affordable bus services have public value, and funds around 24% of bus operators’ revenue income. Since the local bus market was deregulated in 1986, the majority of local bus journeys (87% by mileage in 2018-19), are on commercial services.

“Private sector operators decide their bus routes and frequencies and invest in new vehicles and routes according to commercial considerations. However, public money has always supported bus services. Local authorities may choose to tender for additional supported services, which are those they consider necessary but are not otherwise commercially viable.

“They then support these services from their general revenue funding from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG). In 2019, buses accounted for 56% of public transport journeys by those living in England outside London, or an average 5.8 million passenger journeys each day.

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“Despite a long-term shift to private car use, buses still support millions of essential daily trips, and for many people provide the only practical, frequently used method of transport, other than walking. Bus use is particularly common for people aged from 17 to 20 and over 70, and for women and girls, most ethnic minority groups, and people on lower incomes.

“Our experience of improvement strategies in other devolved, deregulated sectors shows that success requires whole-government commitment to long-term outcomes and locally led sustainable solutions.

“We consider it most important that the DfT should set out: first, a clear, consistent vision of the future of bus travel, that encourages and supports local authorities to make long-term plans for their own local needs.

“Second, a detailed, transparent delivery plan with clear objectives, responsibilities and accountabilities for the DfT and others

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“Thirdly, good quality data and measures of success; Fourth, an active role in supporting local authorities to access evidence and experience to support improvement. And finally, setting out the amount and form of funding for both local authorities and operators necessary to achieve the objectives of the bus strategy.”

Whether the CaPCA will be following these DfT guidelines as part of their bus reform strategy remains to be seen.

More details of the specifics of the new bus reforms determined by the Bus Reform Task Group will be announced at the next CaPCA Transport Committee meeting which will be held on November 4 2020

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