Bus crisis? Part One: How two communities working with Wiltshire Council squared one bus service circle
Buses are back in the news - and very much on people's minds: Wiltshire Council's consultation on the future of the county's bus services has already attracted over 8,000 submissions.
In addition the Salisbury Journal is mounting a STOP BUS CUTS campaign calling on the unitary council to end its plans to axe dozens of bus services. Inspired by this a change.org petition has begun its internet rounds.
The current consultation, which ends on April 4, puts forward six different options to reduce the £5million bus subsidy budget - including the option to end bus subsidies completely. These plans would - if agreed - not take effect until 2017-2018. The Wiltshire Council elections are in May 2017.
At present, however, the local news about buses is not all bad. In fact one development shows how communities can work together and with Wiltshire Council establish and perfect routes - with savings intact.
Eighteen months ago Wiltshire Council were looking for £70,000 of savings on the Connect2Wiltshire (C2W) bus services in Pewsey Vale and between Pewsey and Devizes. Following the initial consultation, a working group of volunteers from the Pewsey and the Devizes Community Area Partnerships (CAP) was formed to challenge the options presented.
Wiltshire agreed to the new arrangements. The group's idea was to hold a better consultation and find a better way to serve the Pewsey and Devizes areas - while still making the required savings.
As Dawn Wilson, Chair of Pewsey CAP, told Marlborough News Online: "It was vital that the two areas worked together through their Community Area Partnerships and with Wiltshire Council officers."
[NOTE: Marlborough no longer has a CAP - it got lost in the early days of the Marlborough Area Board. CAPs are no longer funded by Wiltshire Council.]
The volunteers on these two CAPs spent hundreds of hours surveying times, routes and passengers' use of the services. Wiltshire Council officers invested equal amounts of time and commitment.
The easy answer was to reduce the number of buses from four vehicles to three - an immediate saving of £70,000. In addition there were significant potential savings from scaling back the booking system.
But fitting the needs of elderly shoppers, the young going to and from school and college, and commuters travelling to and from Pewsey station, eluded them.
So the two CAPs called in Alan James, a well-known expert in rural transport with international experience. For a start he lives in ultra-rural Dumfries and Galloway, but he also knew the Wiltshire area from his work evaluating the Wigglybus service since 2001. Wiltshire Council agreed to fund his costs.
As he told Marlborough News Online, Alan James knew what the local transport problems involved: "We have to move away from the default assumption that has governed thinking for many years that people living in rural areas have to have cars because it is so difficult to provide alternatives in areas with dispersed and relatively small populations."
"This may be a widely held view, but the minority of rural households without a car is more significant than is often thought, and the numbers of members of rural households without independent use of a car is more significant still."
"Even in an affluent rural area like Pewsey Vale, one in twelve households has no car, and 45 per cent of households have one car which is likely to be unavailable to members of the household for periods of time."
By August last year Alan James had produced a new C2W timetable proposal that the CAPs were generally happy with. But at Wiltshire Council's behest several compromises were made which gave rise to some unfortunate issues in the new timetable.
Everybody, says Dawn Wilson, recognised its problems: "We agreed to go back to the drawing board." Dawn was coordinating all the volunteers and liaising with Wiltshire Council. They were looking for ways to make it work to everyone's benefit.
By Christmas they had rectified most of the issues that had crept in. Soon afterwards the timetables were printed and for the first time they included details of the fare structure and onward connections.
It provided a mix of 'hail and ride' and bookable services. Also for the first time it included a service taking Devizes people by express route to Pewsey Station and back with a Wednesday-Saturday night bus service.
This joint community and council solution has been welcomed by Devizes MP Claire Perry. And it has the support of Great Western Railway with links to the timetables via their website.
The new services had a soft launch in February and they are proving popular.
They will not be celebrating with a champagne launch party, but there are plans to buy some umbrellas sporting the Connect2 logo for local regulars as a thank you. These would be paid for out of community transport funding secured for marketing the new timetables.
The umbrellas will be for people to use when caught in a rain storm as they leave a bus for the short walk home - and surely no one would dare not to bring them back to the buses and instead use them on personal shopping trips.
See Marlborough News Online's second article on the county's buses here.