|Service 18 on Balmoral Road|
Finally, after almost two years of campaigning and over two months after a meeting at County Hall in which we were promised improvements in "weeks not months" the Bus Users' Group can announce that the new timetable on service 18 in Lancaster will start on 6th March. The new operator will be Stagecoach. (Details of the new route and timetable can be found in the post below)
Kirkby Lonsdale Coach Hire reduced its previous hourly service to just four journeys a day in June 2015 when an attempt to take the previously-contracted service commercial failed. Lancashire County Council had just adopted a policy of not entering into any new bus service contracts due to its deteriorating financial position and refused to pay for replacing the withdrawn journeys, despite the fact that until recently they had been subsidised.
The Bus Users' Group was then put in touch with Lancaster City Councillor Tim Hamilton-Cox, who made us aware of the existence of £500,000 of developer contributions made available by the developers of the former Moor Hospital site, now known as Standen Gate, in March 2012. The Agreement under which the money was provided required it to be spent on three things:
1. Improvement of the bus service
2. Provision of a cycleway
3. Introduction of a 20 mph limit on nearby roads.
Item three had been completed before the Agreement came into force but there had been no sign of the other two requirements, which Tim Hamilton-Cox had been trying to get progressed.
Once the BUG got involved it became apparent that part of the problem was a lack of communication between the City Council (who as housing authority had received the money) and the County Council (whose job as highway authority it was to spend it).
We have to admit that we made little progress at first. The County Council's public transport officers appeared unsure as to whether funding was actually available, whilst more senior staff appeared to blame the City Council for not releasing the cash. Last summer, the County Council started work on a scheme to improve the roads at the junction of Quernmore Road, Wyresdale Road and Moor Lane and it appeared that the bulk of the available funding was to be used to pay for this, with the bus service improvement having to wait until the final cost was known and make the best of whatever funding was left over.
Throughout the campaign we had experienced great difficulty in getting a straight answer from anyone who ought to know - and frequently got no answer at all, with letters and emails to County Hall going ignored.
The breakthrough came when Cllr John Fillis, LCC's Cabinet Member for Highways & Transport agreed to speak at our October meeting. When the matter of service 18 was raised he claimed to be unaware of the problem but did agree to our member - and Green Party County Councillor - Gina Dowding's request for a separate meeting to discuss it at which Bus User Group representatives would be invited.
The meeting took place in December and involved BUG representatives as well as County Councillors Gina Dowding and Lizzi Collinge, City Councillor Tim Hamilton-Cox and even Cat Smith MP, who made a point of being in County Hall so she could attend. When it became clear that the senior highway officers present were showing no sense of urgency towards the bus service and were sticking to the line that it would have to wait until all the other works had been completed and paid for we pointed out that the whole purpose of making the money available was that the bus service should be improved at an early stage in the housing development so that new residents could take it into account before their new travel habits became established. We also pointed out that someone had been sitting on the money since 2012 and that the terms of the Agreement required it to be spent - or at least committed - within five years of when it was signed.
To his credit, Councillor Fillis then instructed the officers to make at least £100,000 available and to organise the new service in "weeks not months". The new contract actually has a value of £115,000 and should be sufficient to operate the new timetable for 19 months or until September 2018. During that time additional developer funding is expected to become available and this will allow the service to be extended. The BUG will be doing all it can to help promote the new service and to increase ridership to a point where the service will be a commercial proposition after funding comes to an end.