Sunday, 3 November 2019

First Bus Sale

THE potential sale of First Bus will be discussed by Councillors from across West Yorkshire next week.

West Yorkshire Combined Authority's Transport Committee will receive updates on the Authority’s decision to participate in the forthcoming sale of First West Yorkshire, potential additional government funding for local bus services and the West Yorkshire Bus Alliance at a meeting next Friday.

Earlier this month the Combined Authority agreed that with First Group PLC’s planning to sell off its bus operations, it was important to protect local passengers’ interests. Legal and consultancy support was approved to explore how the Authority can respond actively to the situation and ensure the growth of bus services in West Yorkshire.

At the end of September, the Transport Secretary announced a funding package of more than £200 million for bus services for 2020/21 along with a commitment to ‘the UK’s first-ever long-term bus strategy and funding settlement’. The additional funding indicated that a proportion of the £200 million would be spent to help local transport bodies such as the Combined Authority supporting the "socially necessary" but commercially unviable bus services.

The introduction of electric buses and the trial of on-demand services will also be funded, and a long-term funding package has been promised as part of the 2020 Government spending review.

The West Yorkshire Bus Alliance emerged from the successful Bus18 partnership and is made up of the Combined Authority, West Yorkshire bus operators and West Yorkshire’s councils. It is committed to putting passengers at the heart of any developments and has the main objectives of keeping buses moving and ensuring a sustainable bus network. 
Work being done through the Alliance is focusing on affordability of bus travel, customer service, highway infrastructure and air quality.

Councillor Kim Groves who chairs the West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Committee said: “When you consider despite falls in passenger numbers, people still make over twice as many bus journeys as train journeys in West Yorkshire, making buses vital to achieving our aims of creating economic growth that benefits everyone, while at the same time combating climate change.

“That importance of buses is the very reason why the Combined Authority initiated the 
Bus 18 initiative with bus operators and our district partners. We all recognise the need to work together to stemming the decline in passenger numbers and make buses the natural option.

“We have the clear shared goals of developing a simple fares structures which include ensuring young people’s access to opportunities through affordable travel, and a network that is understandable and easy to use for everyone. And we are investing in works to tackle congestion points on the local road network to improve the punctuality, the reliability and attractiveness of buses, and a bus fleet with the reduced emissions levels that will enable us to achieve our aim of zero-carbon city region by 2038 or sooner.”

Commenting on the Combined Authority’s decision to participate in the sale of First West Yorkshire, Cllr Groves said:

“Around 70 per cent of West Yorkshire’s bus services are run by First West Yorkshire, which equates to over 100 million journeys per year so the implications for local people of the company being sold are huge.

“Although we know the sale of the company will be a complex and competitive process, we feel it is vital that the Combined Authority takes an active role in the process to guarantee passengers’ interest are represented and taken into account whoever ends up owning the company and running services.

“It is also important that the overall economic and environmental objectives of the Bus Alliance are part of any new owner’s commitments and by participating actively in the sale process, the Combined Authority Transport Committee will have the level of control to ensure this happens.”

Last year West Yorkshire Combined Authority spent over £17 million supporting ‘socially necessary’ bus journeys which would otherwise not run because they are not profitable.

Commenting on the government’s recent £200 million funding announcement, which includes additional support for these services, Cllr Groves said: “These are the journeys that connect people to early-morning or late-night shifts, that provide a lifeline for isolated communities, that enable people to visit friends and relatives on Sundays and take advantage of local facilities and services.

“Ongoing pressure on the West Yorkshire councils’ budgets has put pressure on the funding we have available to support these journeys, without which some people may not be able to work, attend college or training opportunities while other could face isolation and loneliness.

“Extra government funding for these journeys and other initiatives is welcome but rather than one-off announcements we need to see Ministers, some of whom claim to have an interest in buses, making good on their promises of multi-year funding settlements that would provide greater stability and a National Bus Strategy that recognises the sector’s importance to our local and national economies.”

At next week’s Transport Committee meeting, members will also be asked to approve the Combined Authority’s updated Bus Information Strategy. In line with feedback from over 1,000 people in a public consultation, the Strategy takes a ‘digital first’ approach but also recognises there are people who still rely on printed information, which will continue to be provided.