Empire!

It would appear that some of the structure for providing local transport after Covid is starting to take shape. It seems that Transport Authorities have been given some indications of the form which the long awaited National Bus Strategy will take. Regardless of any ongoing issues, attempting to discuss longer term issues is currently met with silence, which suggests we are entering a period where change is now imminent rather than anticipated.

The Lads Club
One local Transport Authority appears to be waiting on time to see if the Strategy will make it easier for them to set up their own passenger transport operation. North Somerset Council have been running buses on Community Transport Permits under the umbrella of Weston Community Transport for several years now, to very low standards of accessibility and presentation. Despite them supposedly being an arms length operation, council officers routinely refer to them as our buses in conversation. Observations locally would also suggest that North Somerset’s famously harsh parking enforcement turns a blind eye to WCT vehicles, and that displaying appropriate route numbers or destinations are a luxury (despite being a contract condition).

North Somerset Council has also recruited two staff (1) (2) over the past two years with operational experience in providing passenger transport in the murky, muddled waters of the charity/council/CIC sectors. From an outsider’s view, these appointments have been made at the expense of existing staff with relevant experience and local knowledge.

The council consolidated their Home to School and Public Transport departments in to a single Integrated Transport Unit (ITU) some years ago, around the same time as the excess of supply in the local coach market was drying up, particularly in the south of the area. Crosville, Axe Vale and Coombs all withdrew from operation within the space of a few years, which led to prices for Home to School transport rising considerably. Now being one department, the ITU was forced to balance their budget by removing almost all contracts for local bus services. It appears that the only local bus services remaining in the council’s core spending are 88 (Nailsea – Clevedon, Carmel) and C1/C2 (WCT).

Collaborative partnership working…?
The ongoing shortage of availability in the Home to School market might lead some procurement teams to work more co-operatively with operators to encourage those left to expand and take on further work, but instead the council have made their contracts tighter, their staff less considerate and their systems more complex. The unco-operative nature of the ITU towards external providers spreads throughout their activities.

September 2020 saw a particular low point for the ITU’s Home to School provision as a new software package (supposedly to revolutionise how much data is available to providers, passengers, parents and council staff), actually resulted in significant numbers of children being left at the roadside from overloaded vehicles while others arrived at schools almost empty. Operators received an email at the end of the first week thanking them for their overwhelming commitment and understanding during a very difficult period, then in the very next paragraph demanded a spreadsheet of driver and vehicle details (including highly personal data they had no right to request, nor had demonstrated any requirement to store under GDPR) within three days.

Das Capital
Despite a change of administration in the interim, North Somerset Council clearly has the support of their members for voracious capital spending. They announced in September 2020 that waste collections and recycling centres would be brought back in house as a contract with providers Biffa has been prematurely cancelled. This followed the purchases of Worle’s Queensway Retail Park in March 2018 and Weston’s Sovereign Shopping Centre in August the same year.

We have already seen how creative accountancy is being used in the neighbouring Somerset county to make a needlessly lavish in-house contract coach operation look sustainable. Perhaps the costly local government status symbol of a PSV operation is becoming ever more fashionable.

Can all these factors be a coincidence? Recruitment of operationally experienced staff, shunning of co-operation with existing local businesses, prohibitive working practices and an appetite for empire building using public money? Are we well on the way towards North Somerset Council running their own bus and coach fleet? Most importantly, if the answer to the final question is yes, why won’t any staff or members at the council admit this intention?

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