Crisis talks over Bristol region’s supported buses collapse

Crisis talks over the Bristol region’s under-threat subsidised bus services broke down without agreement. Metro mayor Dan Norris and three council leaders hit an impasse over who should pay, and how much, for 26 of the 80 “supported” routes, which rely on taxpayers’ cash because they do not make money for the operators.

An urgent meeting of the West of England Combined Authority (Weca) committee was called by the heads of the local authorities that comprise the regional body – Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Bath & North East Somerset – with the hope of striking a deal. But after half an hour of debate in public followed by a “10-minute break” that lasted an hour and a half while private talks took place amid offers and counter offers between Mr Norris, who leads Weca, and the councils, the meeting was postponed to a date to be arranged.

A total of 26 supported services are at risk of being scrapped because the cost of buses has soared by 43 per cent through rising prices for fuel and drivers, along with fewer passengers. That equates to an increase of about 10 per cent above the amount budgeted for from the transport levy, which is money that councils are required to provide for routes that are not commercially viable, such as to isolated communities.

Read more:Dozens of subsidised buses at risk as another WECA leaders row erupts

But despite the local authority leaders approving a rise in the levy up to that amount – about £2million – at Weca committee in April, no agreement has been reached since over each authority’s contribution, which prompted the extraordinary committee meeting on Thursday (May 26). Neither the Labour metro mayor nor the three unitary authorities accepted each other’s proposals.

It is understood Mr Norris offered £2million from Weca to help extend the current bus contracts, which run out in August so need renewing or renegotiating imminently, for one year while a longer-term solution is found but that this was rejected because it would still mean the loss of four services. Those routes include a school journey where the cost to transport pupils from Pucklechurch to Sir Bernard Lovell Academy in Oldland Common, South Gloucestershire, is a staggering £426 return a day, which the metro mayor says is unacceptable and should not be funded.

The other services where the cost per passenger journey exceeds £40 for a single trip so would have been axed for at least a year are the 79 from Marshfield to Bath, the 626 Wotton-Under-Edge to Bristol and the 680 North Yate to Filton College. The failure to agree followed a compromise put forward by B&NES Council Lib Dem leader Cllr Kevin Guy backed by South Gloucestershire Council Conservative leader Cllr Toby Savage and Bristol Labour deputy mayor Cllr Craig Cheney.

They said this would have bought some time while other Weca funding was found to protect more services. Mr Norris told the meeting at Bristol City Hall: “The transport levy is something local councils provide to supported bus services and is a very important and onerous burden on councils.

“Because they are given a duty to provide supported bus services it is not an option, it’s a duty. The issue I have is that I’m quite happy to do what the combined authority can do to help but I still do not have that duty for supported buses.”

He said his responsibility was to create new bus routes through the recently announced £105milllion Bus Service Improvement Plan and the £540million City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement from the Government to improve services and reliability, “not to shore up existing services from those monies”. Mr Norris said: “The real challenge is the money we’ve got in are the building blocks for better service in future.

“If I could use the money to help you support these important services, I would happily do that but the rules don’t allow that. I am happy to ask the Government if they would consider if the monies could be used in a different way but I cannot promise money that I can’t provide.

“I’m afraid the responsibility still lies with council leaders. There are one or two services that are astronomically expensive and cannot be justified.”

Tabling the unitary authority leaders’ alternative proposal, including extending existing contracts for a year, Cllr Guy said: “No one in this room wants to see cuts to bus services. We need to protect our bus services while we find a long-term solution.

“We hope, Dan, that you will see this resolution in a constructive way to take this forward. The proposal helps to keep all the supported bus services running. It is a workable solution to avoid unnecessary cuts.”

Cllr Savage said the 12-month extension would give time to develop plans to ensure adequate alternative services were in place to meet the needs of disadvantaged communities. Cllr Cheney said one problem with Weca’s original recommendation to increase the transport levy was that it would have “tied us into a decision we don’t have the authority to make” by circumventing each councils’ budget-setting process which needs to involve opposition groups.

Following the lengthy delay, Mr Norris said talks had been constructive but no deal reached.

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