We’ll start with the short. Following an announcement on board my bus services this week, this accompanying notice explains my position.
There are a lot of factors involved over and above those on the notice, so i’ll go in to a little more detail here.
The income squeeze
Prior to Covid coming along and making everything less predictable, back in 2019 i was called to North Somerset Council’s offices in Clevedon to discuss the future of the then contracted services 128 and 135. The result was that they were being told to cut costs and that they had identified the services as being less valuable than some of their other contracts. I was challenged to “find ways to make the services more sustainable”, which is difficult when the only tangible income for them is controlled by the council themselves. The contracts were issed with an early termination notice in the first months of 2020 (to finish at the end of May) and i confirmed that services 135 (and 24 in Weston) would be lost, although i would carry on with 128 for a period. Although that loss of income wasn’t a huge amount in the world of providing transport, it was enough to challenge the business case for providing service 128 and continuing to provide the 134 which had been commercial. In reality, the payments for 128 and 135 were supporting the whole package of services (24/128/134/135).
Of course, this talk about cutting revenue support and reducing their spend upon bus services proved to be disingenuous when less than a year later, hugely expensive and overspecified new contracts would be derived apparently on the whim of the council leader at North Somerset and his desire to “rip up the timetables and start again”, which is always the most callous and careless of transport strategies. The payments for the procured HCT services through Yatton alone are higher in one day (£1,020) than was being paid to support service 128 for over a month.
The Enhanced Partnership: false promises and deceit
Shortly after resuming services 128 and 134 after the Covid inflicted hiatus in 2020, details began to trickle through from WECA regarding the formation of an Enhanced Partnership based upon their deeply flawed Bus Strategy. There has been a huge amount of lip service paid during the formation of the documents forming the basis of the EP framework upon which further EP schemes will be enacted. Operator Meetings have been held on Zoom roughly every two weeks since late November, but the agendas for the meetings have always been dictated by WECA and any deviation from them is quickly shut down by their staff. There has been no facility for operators to raise issues regarding the scope of the EP, regardless of how detrimental they are to our businesses.
As examples, i raised formal objections regarding six issues under the EP. These included WECA and North Somerset’s failure to consult with operators regarding changes to supported services (response: It is for the LTAs to determine the specification of the services they procure with public money – in other words, we know best and may not be questionned) and the use of Section 19 and Section 22 operations. North Somerset Council continue to illegally engage Weston Community Transport to operate secret service 56 between Clevedon, Walton Bay and Portishead on a section 19 permit vehicle, which is not legal for use on a public facing service. (To quote a senior member of WECA staff last November: “Vehicles operated under s19 permits cannot be used for services open to the general public“.) North Somerset’s staff continue to lie that the “market has failed them”, when the truth is that they’ve never asked the market. The service is also registered to North Somerset Council as an S22 Community Bus Service (CB001995/B1736) which has to date never been varied despite changing at least three times), and has only ever been provided by Weston CT rather than the council themselves. The lines between North Somerset Council and Weston CT have always been very blurry. Perhaps another one of these illegal minibus services will be provided in secret to replace facilities lost when my services finish because there is no sign of any attempt to procure one properly. The “market has failed” lie may well be trotted out once again.
I also made an objection that WECA’s procurement methods are unfairly discriminating against small businesses. The response from them was that they know best, the matter isn’t open for discussion and if i was unhappy with this to make a formal complaint. So much for “partnership working”.
Finally, the EP Scheme requires all vehicles on local bus services in WECA and North Somerset to be Euro VI by the end of 2022. Of course, First and other major operators have had (and continue to have) free upgrades for a substantial number of vehicles through the Bath and Bristol Clean Air Zone schemes, but this isn’t available for those of us who aren’t regular visitors to the cities. After preliminary discussions about support for upgrades, a blanket of silence emerged and the cheaper method of excluding certain services from the EP was eventually chosen instead. As a result, these excluded services would not be required to meet the EP specification, but would also no longer be guaranteed to be part of any ticketing arragements, publicity or any other LTA obligations enforceable under the EP framework or schemes. The exclusions are simply a stay of execution rather than enabling longer term operation. As an operator who has consistently called for a more even playing field and inclusive projects which present a unified product to the consumer, the exclusions go against everything i believe in and everything that WECA and North Somerset claim to want to promote as a united product offering to the travelling passenger.
Despite trying to make the point several times, it has never been acknowledged by the LTAs that operators who provide a small number of services are being disproportionately affected by meeting the EP conditions. It stands to reason that if the compliance costs are spread over the operating costs of a 65 seat double decker working 14+ hours a day, six or seven days a week, these will be much smaller per passenger journey than a 30 seat Solo working four journeys a week.
Of course, my objections to the Enhanced Partnership were all dismissed because my operation isn’t big enough to matter. (More formally “We have reviewed the objection against The Enhanced Partnership Plans and Schemes (Objections) Regulations 2018 and concluded that it does not meet the required threshold to be considered a valid objection in terms of the number of objectors and mileage covered.“)
Even if financial support were offered from WECA or North Somerset, i would have to think very carefully about accepting as there is a fundamental issue of trust which nobody seems interested in rebuilding. Staff at North Somerset in particular have already bullied one independent operator off of the local bus service network (by demanding vehicle inspections at inconvenient times in inconvenient locations at short notice, and accompanying reams of paperwork previously unheard of from an LTA), so why would i want to expose myself to such vindictive behaviour?
Since the start of the Covid era, concessionary fares paid by WECA and North Somerset have been guaranteed to the reimbursement payments which were paid in the year prior (02/2019-01/2020). Prior to the Omicron variant causing a fall in passengers numbers, the DfT issued guidance which suggested that this should be phased out over the 2022/23 financial year, with payments being a progressively lowering percentage of the guaranteed payment or the actual numbers carried, whichever was the higher figure. For services with other incomes (substantial fare revenue or subsidy), this doesn’t represent a significant problem. For services 128 and 134, it makes them a complete basket case.
It is fair to say that the shoppers’ services have taken a fairly severe hit in loadings because of the demographic we carry. A number of friendly faces we previously saw every week are no longer travelling. Being in close contact with our communities mean we know the painful truth about why they have gone. Lockdown was not kind to those in the early stages of dementia, nor those who were just about keeping themselves going physically. And there are several who are no longer with us.
But it is also fair to say that those who have been able to return have supported the services wholeheartedly. We’ve grown passenger usage in some unexpected places and proven that demand exists and persists for journeys which are almost or completely impossible by other public transport services. Passenger numbers appear to have returned far more strongly to us than they have on other services in the Chew Valley area. One operator of a supported service in the area commented that i carry more passengers on one return trip than they do in a whole month. WECA have just reissued a contract for that service to continue.
The problem is that the Concessionary Fares scheme is no longer fit for purpose, particularly for services which are completley reliant upon it. The calculations are outdated and take no account of the massive increase in costs which have come with PSVAR, online smart ticket machines, vehicle tracking, an inflated admin burden, low emissions compliance and everything else we’ve absorbed as an industry. There comes a point where so much effluent is pumped in to a container that it bursts.
If you’re a fan of figures, then the truth is that once any aspect of guaranteed reimbursements have been eradicated, we’re looking at a total income of £60-£70 at best to take a bus load of 18-20 passengers up to 25 miles and back over the course of five hours. It could be as low as £30 if the councils decide to close roads and make part of the route inaccessible (as happened during February half term). During school holidays, there is nowhere for that figure to hide by being offset against Home to School income. It has also tied me to the services for 51 weeks of the year as there is no income to pay for somebody else to drive them if i am not deriving a salary from them. The situation is nowhere near sustainable, and nobody in local government is interested in talking about addressing it.
Unlike First, i don’t get offered any fruits of Dan Norris’ magic WECA money tree if i make moves to withdraw from bus services as happened with the 178 earlier this year. The same now appears to be happening with service 8 in Bath, Bristol service 96 and Yate route Y5. Anything First withdraw from seems to be immediately issued as a contract to be supported. The same happens in North Somerset where services 2, 4, 5 and 6 in Weston are now also being offered as a contracted opportunity.
Not only, but also: Other factors in play
At this point, it also seems fair to note that North Somerset Council haven’t spent a penny on bus services to Blagdon since September 2021 when their secret 992 minibus disappeared without notice or fanfare. WECA have previously stated that they pay no contribution towards the 672 or 683.
The Department for Transport and central government also need to accept their role in this. The commercial viability case for service 134 is very different now to what it was when i took it over nine years ago. Legislation from Westminster has substantially increased the cost of providing these services and reduced the available income. Nine years ago, i could happily use the Volvo coach which i already owned to operate a Home to School contract. There was no obligation to have online ticket machines or provide data feeds to Bus Open Data. Bus Service Operators’ Grant (BSOG) was a relatively easy thing to register for and claim (it now requires claims to be vetted by specific Chartered Accountants and returned to a very strict deadline).
Covid grant (CBSSG) was complicated and generated very little income for us, but the successor (and much smaller) Bus Recovery Grant (BRG) is now unattainable to operators without a substantial collection of back office staff able to produce the data required. Nobody considered that perhaps there should be a threshold below which claims wouldn’t need to be so involved. Smaller providers running marginal services seem to be considered acceptable collateral damage by these careless civil servants and their apparent new masters at KPMG who clearly have no concept of how microenterprises operate.
I can’t deny that the past two years have been difficult in aspects other than just Covid and the instability brought about by that. What felt like a thriving and co-operative community of independent bus and coach operators five or ten years ago (particularly through the Coach Operators Federation) has now dwindled to fewer, more isolated companies.
It is also well documented how difficult finding staff has become and how challenging some operators find it to retain staff. I was very lucky to have a loyal and supremely reliable driver for many years in Kelvin Udell. He is still very much missed and has been in my thoughts often as the process to withdraw from the services has progressed.
All i can offer is that i’ve been as open and honest here as i can be. The situation is very complicated and all the factors listed above have had an impact on the decision i’ve made, so i hope that none of them will be taken as causing the service withdrawals in isolation. As i have said many times before, my door has always been open to anyone who wants to discuss matters here, particularly with a view to repairing and improving the relationships which are broken. Nobody has ever taken up the offer.
I have loved running these services, particularly the process of building 128 up as an idea from scratch. I’ve loved being part of the conversations in the communities we have served. I am going to miss my Tuesday and Thursday trips. I am going to miss the friends i have made and the atmosphere they created on their bus routes.
But it seems real people don’t matter to those working in local government, as long as they’re getting one over on somebody who doesn’t fit with their grand schemes and getting rid of pesky critical thought which doesn’t fit with their big plans for big services provided by big companies, however few of them there may be left by the time they get to enact their plans. Perhaps they should organise another Zoom meeting to discuss it. That’s much easier than acknowledging real people in the real world.