Written evidence submitted by the Bath and North East Somerset
Rural Transport Group (BRTG) (BUS0025)

The Bath & North East Somerset Rural Transport Group (BRTG) was created jointly in 2019 by BANES and its rural parishes with the aim of developing joined-up thinking to get a holistic picture of rural transport needs and solutions across the region. The Group adopted an action plan, recently reviewed and updated:


The BRTG welcomes this opportunity to offer a brief summary of its view on the current state of the implementation of Bus Back Better.

Challenges facing the sector as it recovers from the pandemic and the effectiveness of steps taken by both Government and stakeholders in response

Publication of Bus Back Better was followed by the publication of the West of England Combined Authority’s (WECA’s) Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP.) Both Bus Back Better and WECA’s BSIP were welcome and read well. The BRTG and other BANES stakeholders were encouraged by the intention to create an Enhanced Partnership (EP) to bring both the strategy and associated operational planning to life.

However, at the WECA Bus Users’ Forum held on 22rd March it was collectively recognised that:

-     WECA is strong on aspiration to provide affordable, convenient and safe transport but the only current information on the BSIP implementation was to pin hopes on the impact of the EP. The creation of the EP has been postponed until some unspecified date. Such flux and uncertainty undermines collective confidence in the real commitment to deliver against the objectives of Bus Back Better and WECA’s BSIP.

-     Passenger numbers are back to around 75% pre-Covid levels but concessionary passenger numbers are not more than 55%. Recently, Baroness Vere met with Bath’s MP and local Councillors to review the post Covid recovery. We are told that the Minister effectively ridiculed the data offered, saying that First Bus was pulling the wool over the MP’s and BANES’ collective eyes. We are told she refuted the passenger data given without offering any alternative database she believed to be valid. Such discourteous, unhelpful and arbitrary behaviour by the Minister undermines collective confidence in the real commitment to deliver against the objectives of Bus Back Better and WECA’s BSIP.

-     The big commercial operators have major problem with drivers absent due to Covid. First Bus had 37 drivers off last week, often at a few hours’ notice.

-     The Bus Recovery Grant has now been confirmed as extending beyond April through to October 2022. There are apparently no details about resourcing Bus Back Better after that. The announcement about avoiding the “cliff edge” of funding was made extremely late. It is difficult to see how a regional bus network can be designed and delivered by anyone in response to Bus Back Better if the operators’ business has to lurch from one 6-monthly funding crisis to another. Consummate brinkmanship in strategic decision-making and sticking plaster solutions to the unavoidable (and wholly predictable) resourcing challenge undermines collective confidence in the real commitment to deliver against the objectives of Bus Back Better and WECA’s BSIP.

-     WECA’s understandable line was, accordingly that “we want to do better but are constrained by commercial realities.” None of these commercial realities could be deemed a surprise or avoidable. To have both Bus Back Better and WECA’s BSIP published in all their glossy glory seemingly before sensible collective decisions had been made about how to address the commercial realities undermines collective confidence in the real commitment to deliver against the hype and consultant-peddled snake oil.

Progress against the ambitions and targets set out in national bus strategy including the effectiveness, pace and priority of the strategy’s implementation

For all the reasons above, we haven’t seen any progress. Creation of the EP has been postponed TFN. Bus services across rural BANES remain poor to patchy to non-existent. Rural residents hoping to see and feel improvements in their local bus services remain hostages to fortune. There is no agreed level of bus service that any rural BANES settlement might reasonably expect as we go forward (cf the CPRE’s “Bus Per Village per Hour2 campaign.)

Moreover, there is a woefully poor collective articulation of what Value for Money means in the disbursement of the limited resources available to sustain “supported”, ie  commercially unviable, rural bus services. In pursuance of its BSIP, and thereby Bus Back Better, in October last year WECA carried out what it called a survey into regional supported bus services, the results intended to inform the related tendering process out towards August this year. The survey was a disaster from start to finish. More details can be supplied if the Committee is interested in them, but it is best summarised as being a case study in Groupthink and a masterclass in how not to run a survey. It was and remains deeply disheartening and disappointing that such an omnishambles was associated with an – perhaps the key - issue critical to the delivery of rural bus services.

Such crass incompetence displayed so soon after the publication of the ostensibly up-beat BSIP undermines collective confidence in WECA’s ability to deliver against it.

Bus funding over the short and long term

Being blunt, it beggars belief that any organisation can publish what it trumpets as a flagship strategy without first having secured stakeholders’ buy-in as to how it is to be resourced.

Being equally blunt, blaming decision-avoidance and brinkmanship in funding decisions on COVID is at best disingenuous and at worst cowardly.

None of us will be able to play our own (crucial) part in the collective delivery against Bus Back Better and WECA’s BSIP if the whole programme has to lurch asynchronously and violently from one 6 monthly surprise announcment on funding to another. It really is no way to run a whelk stall.


Modal shift from other forms of transport

For all the reasons above, there has to date been no modal shift to bus services from other forms of transport.

Given the uncertainty about resourcing and the plan(s) for the creation of the structure(s) and governance(s) required to deliver the incentives and triggers that will generate a modal shift, there is no collective understanding as to how and when it might happen. The while, BANES publishes and talks about its “Journey to Net Zero [in 2030]” as if it’s all going to come out in the wash.


March 2022