Lancashire County Council's funding difficulties have led to a large number of cuts to supported bus services in the current financial year and projections for future years paint a similarly depressing picture. It's no secret that in many areas the council sees the future for public transport consisting of community transport, parish buses and even car sharing schemes. But a revised policy for supported bus services suggests that there may still be a role for the conventional local bus.
The County Council's new "Assessment & Priority Policy for Public Transport Services in Lancashire", adopted in December 2016 sets out a two-part process for bus services that require financial support from the council.
Step 1: Service Need Assessment Process
The first step is to determine whether there has been a "failure of the market" where no commercial bus operator is running a service or where a commercial service has been withdrawn. This process has five stages which can be summarised as
i) Are there any alternative services available to people either to the same destination or to alternative comparable destinations and will provision of a supported service by the council undermine any comparable commercial services by diverting passengers away from them. If none of the above applies then the process moves on to stage ii)
ii) In the absence of the proposed service will the needs of the communities affected still be met. The "needs" in question will differ from area to area and are defined in the council's "needs profile" for each of the 34 "neighbourhood areas" that Lancashire is now divided into. If these needs are not being met then on to stage iii)
iii) What will be the impact of the loss of a service on existing users? There are three considerations here: a) Does the council have a statutory duty to provide transport for any existing users? (This is generally restricted to schoolchildren attending provided schools over the maximum walking distance away); b) Will any users be denied access to key services? (Basically Employment, Medical services and shopping) and c) Are any users "particularly reliant" on the bus service (i.e. elderly people, young people, people with disabilities or those living in areas of high social-deprivation and low car-ownership). If this stage is passed, it's on to stage iv)
iv) This stage asks "Is the service "value for money?" This is calculated by taking the cost of running the service, deducting all the income from fares, concessionary passes, season tickets etc and then dividing the result by the number of passengers travelling to calculate a "cost-per-passenger-journey. If this figure works out at £5 or less then the service is considered to have passed the test.
v) Step five requires a decision to be taken about whether the local circumstances (taking into account the previous four steps) show that a service is required. If this is the case then we move on to Step 2
Step 2: Service Provision Priority Process
This stage is required because the County Council recognises that its financial position is such that it is unlikely to be able to fund all the services that make it through Step 1 and it will need to prioritise them. The priorities taken into consideration are:
a) What is the purpose of passengers' journeys? (In declining order of priority these are Employment, Medical/Welfare, Shopping, Education and Leisure). Education may seem a low priority here, but schoolchildren to whom the council has a legal duty to provide transport are taken into account separately).
b) Does the service serve at least one of the 34 Neighbourhood Centres determined by the council.
c) Does the service pass through one of the council's "Air Quality Management Zones" and could thus be seen as contributing to improved air quality. (A curious one, as the bus services concerned likely to be used to relatively small numbers of people, most of whom will not have access to cars so the effects on air quality are likely to be marginal)
d) Priority is to be given to services running at least five days a week. (A priority that appears to discriminate against rural areas where many potential users would be happy to see buses one or two days a week rather than none at all).
e) What alternatives are available. (This appears to duplicate stage i) in the Assessment Process (above).
f) Priority is to be given to services carrying larger numbers of holders of Concessionary Bus Passes on the grounds that they are less likely to have access to alternatives. (This is encouraging and it should stop passholders feeling in any way "guilty" that by using their passes they are undermining their bus service, whereas in practice they will be doing the opposite).
g) Usage. The more people that use the service and the lower the cost-per-passenger the higher the ;priority. This ensures that the available funding benefits the maximum number of
And Finally. . .
Even when a service has passed successfully through all the above it will still have to be evaluated against the alternatives with a bus service seemingly a bit of a last resort! The council will consider whether a service can be provided by other means (such as community transport, Parish Bus Schemes, taxis, car clubs or even car sharing schemes.
It will, sensibly, search for alternative funding sources such as District or Parish Council contributions or payments from developers under "section 106" (although if Lancaster's service 18 is anything to go by don't hold your breath!)
It will look to see if the need can be met by diverting an existing service (although one would have thought that this might have been done at the start of the process!) and if more services qualify for funding than is funding is available for they can be placed on a reserve list until such funding becomes available.
The good news is that the council sees a value in maintaining stability in its supported bus network and it has recently announced that it is extending all existing contracts until the end of March 2018. Furthermore, all the Lancaster area services supported by the council are, according to published figures, well within the £5 per passenger journey criterion.
Anyone wishing to read the policy and the criteria in full can do so from Lancashire County Council's website via this link.