Monday, 11 February 2013

Briefing Note: Bus Cuts And Next Steps (by Susan van de Ven)

Cllr Susan van de Ven

Cambridgeshire Future Transport: Failing

Over the next 18 months, Cambridgeshire County Council’s administration is planning to complete the process of replacing every single bus subsidy in Cambridgeshire with a ‘Cambridgeshire Future Transport’ solution. The CFT project has now been running for two years and a number of bus services have been cut, but not a single transport solution is yet up and running.

Only one new service is out to tender and the whole project is behind schedule, just 18 months before it is due for completion county-wide.

CFT has so far cost the tax payer nearly £470,948 and a new tier of bureaucracy has been created to run the project.

What is Cambridgeshire Future Transport?

CFT is designed to replace the council’s support for subsidized bus services. It seeks ‘innovative and local’ transport solutions through intensive ‘community engagement’ in geographic areas where bus subsidies are earmarked for termination, regardless of the social and economic value, or the performance of subsidized buses in those areas.

CFT was conceived in February 2011 in the wake of a decision to cut 100% of bus subsidies. Roughly £2.7 million will have been saved by phased subsidy cuts, reaching completion in September 2014.

The original concept was that existing subsidised services could be replaced by new services that, in the long term, would need no financial support. There was no evidence to support this premise. It was also expected that new operators would be encouraged with short term help. This, too, has not so far had any significant positive results.

A hard-fought concession is the £1.5 million in new transport subsidy, though this is allocated to CFT and not to bus subsidies per se. The investment is designed to build up in tandem with the withdrawal of bus subsidies, and to support CFT services. Therefore, subsidy has not been wholly eliminated but substantially reduced, and allocated to an untested new concept.

The administration maintains that CFT is a success, but where is the evidence?

Phasing out bus subsidies and risk

The administration may argue that several ‘new’ subsidized transport services are running, but these are simply interim replacement services in the first two CFT target areas where the bus operator pulled out of council contracts prematurely, due to uncertainty around the council’s plans. The council was caught out and forced to organize emergency replacement contracts, all of which are running months beyond the original termination dates and have put the CFT project behind schedule. Ironically one of these interim services (the Duxford 7A) has the highest per passenger subsidy on record, at £16.70 per journey – £4.61 higher than the highest bus subsidy under the previous regime.

Everyone agrees that per passenger subsidies of that order are not viable, and the Lib Dems group has long called for a root and branch review of bus subsidies. But many of the subsidized bus services set to lose support boast healthy ridership and low per passenger subsidy, and provide access to work, education and services to a wide range of people, as well as lifeline access for isolated people. How exactly does CFT propose to fulfil the promise made by the Leader of the Council, of providing transport services that are better than before?

The council’s retrospective bus subsidies consultation, completed in December 2011 in reaction to a threat of Judicial Review, demonstrates that if subsidized bus services are discontinued, the most vulnerable in society will suffer.

Discussions with bus operators indicate that by putting all remaining bus subsidies at risk, CFT could undermine the overall viability of some commercial bus operators who provide services the county depends on. And if CFT ‘transport solutions’ end up with a high per passenger subsidy, they will be unviable, and vulnerable to new rounds of cuts.

Community transport providers

Discussions with community transport operators also indicate that CFT may undermine the way the council supports long-existing, organically grown community transport providers. These not-for-profit organizations face serious challenges in difficult economic times, and like subsidized bus services are relied upon by thousands of people for essential transport needs. Vehicle repair and replacement programmes require financial resource that many do not have.

The council has received £516K from the Department for Transport specifically for community transport, but through CFT it is asking community transport providers to apply for shares of the fund on a loan basis. For many this is not a workable option. Community Transport schemes run on a non-profit basis precisely because they provide a service where commercial operators have not found a viable market.

Cost of isolation

A failure to meet the essential transport needs of Cambridgeshire’s most vulnerable and isolated people will cost everyone. The Cambridgeshire Adult Skills Strategy recently endorsed by Cabinet spells out critical gaps in transport to learning opportunities. The council is about to take on responsibility for public health, with an emphasis on prevention. A link between social isolation and poor health/mortality is now commonly accepted.

Has the administration commissioned any attempt to quantify the long term social, health, and economic cost of isolation, which will be compounded if Cambridgeshire Future Transport continues on its present course? Until that is done, it is highly irresponsible to continue on the present course of action.

Susan van de Ven
Liberal Democrat Transport Spokesperson
11 Feburary 2013 (further information is available here)