Bus crisis? Part Two: Will the current Wiltshire Council consultation on bus subsidised services allow communities a proper say?
The new timetables for the Connect2Wiltshire bus services were drawn up after a great deal of hard work by Pewsey and Devizes Community Area Partnerships (CAPs) in close liaison with Wiltshire Council's Passenger Transport Unit and the added expertise of an internationally known specialist on rural transport.
Alan James, the expert called in to help sort out these new timetables, told Marlborough News Online: "The new C2W timetable has been devised to trial a model for the more efficient provision of rural bus services, by seeking to understand and provide for a wider range of potential demand, rather than acting solely as a safety net for those without other means of vehicle transport."
"The incorporation of rail connections at Pewsey Station is one example of how this can be done, but more generally a community-led process of timetable development has enabled a better understanding of user needs which have been incorporated as far as possible into the new timetable."
"If successful, it may help to boost the case for retaining rural bus services and stem the current rather depressing scenario of death by a thousand (service) cuts."
About half the bus services in Wiltshire are subsidised by the Council - to the tune of £5.1million per year.
The Council's current consultation on the county's subsidised bus services (which lasts until April 4 and can be found here) will be taking the Pewsey-Devizes Connect2Wiltshire consultations into account. What is less certain is whether communities that may be affected by route closures can get together as Pewsey and Devizes did to fashion a sustainable service to meet their area's needs.
But the pre-consultation process has raised some very interesting points. Several people asked why the bus companies used large vehicles when services often carried one or two passengers. The Council responded: "Council contracts do not require an operator to use a larger vehicle than required to carry the maximum expected load."
"However, operators choose to use the same vehicle throughout the day as it would be more costly to have a smaller vehicle available for use in the middle of the day. Fuel and direct operating costs are only a small proportion of overall costs, so the saving from using a small vehicle would be outweighed by costs of having a larger fleet."
From that and similar responses, it looks very much as though the Council's bid to save money will not result in any transformation of bus services to suit rural communities - smaller vehicles, more frequent services etc. This may, of course, mean that the consultation results simply in cutting services.
Are there other ways to pay for bus services? Dawn Wilson, Chair of the Pewsey CAP, told Marlborough News Online: "Wiltshire is very lucky - there are places around England with no rural transport." But she does believe current policies do not help make rural services sustainable.
"In Wiltshire two fully paying passengers on each journey on each route would secure the services - and take away the need for a subsidy."
But there is another way forward. She thinks a card like the old person's rail card, allowing older passengers to pay two-thirds of the fare would be fairer than the free bus pass. At the moment that is not possible as one contributor making a comment to the pre-consultation process discovered:
Comment: "Free bus passes for OAPs - introduce a small charge for each journey (50p) or for the bus pass (£10 or £20 per annum) or make it means tested. Many users are well off and could afford to pay whereas some users need that pass."
Council response: "This is not allowed under Government legislation. The Project Board will, however, consider whether to lobby Government on this matter..."
One major nation-wide problem is that the government's Buses Bill which aims to revolutionise the way services are delivered and reduce the costs of delivery significantly, is still going through Parliament - while around the country cuts are being made and planned to bus routes. There is a danger that we will end up with a magnificent new Buses Act but no buses, and with millions of bus pass holders but no services on which to use them.
Lack of reliable and cheap bus services can have serious knock-on effects especially in the area of health and wellbeing and its near neighbour - so to speak - rural isolation.
The last word goes to Alan James who has seen these kind of impacts in many countries and in many parts of the UK:
"There are some people from all sectors of the rural population who depend on buses to access work, training, leisure, health and shops: without buses it becomes increasingly impracticable for these people to live in rural areas, and the diversity and vitality of rural communities suffers accordingly."