Passengers back tax rise if it means saving their buses

Most residents would willingly pay more council tax if it meant saving vital buses in the Bristol region, a public meeting heard.

Calls are now growing to give West of England mayor Dan Norris the same power as every other metro mayor to charge households and dedicate that funding to local public transport.

Mr Norris is the only one of nine directly elected heads of combined authorities without the right to set a precept, which would be a relatively small amount of money on top of the council tax to pay for specific projects in his remit.

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The Labour mayor is responsible for the region’s strategic planning, skills and transport but has to rely on money from the West of England Combined Authority’s (Weca’s) three constituent councils – Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Bath & North East Somerset – to keep subsidised buses running.

A dispute over how much each should pay of this “transport levy” recently led to deadlock that was only broken after the first meeting collapsed without agreement and following four hours of talks behind the scenes at the second attempt.

Meanwhile, First Bus has made clear that some loss-making routes will be axed when the Government’s covid funding ends in October.

On Thursday, August 4, the company announced that the X2 Yatton to Bristol, X5 Weston-super-Mare to Bristol via Clevedon and Portishead and the 126 from Weston to Wells will be cut.

It means communities across North Somerset will be left without a service, while Mr Norris revealed last month that the operator was also cancelling the No 5, from Downend to Bristol, and the Y4 and Y5 between Yate and the city, although First says this is “speculation” amid its network review.

With bus cuts uppermost in many people’s minds, the metro mayor held a series of four public meetings nightly from Monday, August 1, to Thursday, August 4, called Big Choices on Buses for residents to help him come up with ways to protect services.

The vast majority of the 70 people who attended the first, at Yate parish hall, indicated that they would be prepared to pay more if it kept routes intact, and most of those preferred higher council tax bills than increased ticket fares.

Transport campaigner David Redgewell told the meeting: “The other metro mayors have precepting powers.

“They send you a bill every year for your public transport.

“It’s a few pounds, it’s not a huge amount, but that pays for your local railway, local trams, local buses, and in the case of Liverpool the Mersey Tunnels and in Tyne the Tyne ferries.

“We could have that system.

“You get a nice little booklet like the one from the police and crime commissioner saying ‘this is how I’ve spent your money this year’.

“That’s a better way to go with Weca than the transport levy.”

Speaking afterwards, Mr Norris said: “On precepting powers, I back the idea that as mayor I should be able to raise council tax to invest in transport.

“I think that would be a more transparent way of funding parts of the transport system.

“At the moment there is a complicated system of ‘transport levies’ which the unitary authorities provide to the West of England Authority which is then spent on helping fund the 60 or so buses that are taxpayer subsidised.

“But we are currently stymied by the fact that the unitary councils provide a much lower amount of money than elsewhere in the country – almost three times less than places like Manchester.”

South Gloucestershire Council leader Conservative Cllr Toby Savage has previously said that is unfair because it is not a like-for-like comparison due the differences in the combined authorities’ responsibilities and funding methods.

Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham set a £22 precept onto council tax bills this year to pay for bus reform, the fire services’s response to terrorism, reversing a reduction in fire engines, improvements to 101 police calls, homeless shelters and other measures.

Yate town councillor Chris Willmore told the Yate meeting that introducing a precept for the Weca mayor would take a lot of time and lobbying but that there was a much quicker way of doing something similar.

She said individual parish councils could ask residents if they would pay more in their council tax specifically for a bus service where they are under threat, such as in Pucklechurch.

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