Ever since Lancashire County Council was forced to back down on plans to savage bus services earlier this year after huge public outcry it's been looking at new ways to put a "value" on these vital service – but its latest consultation has gotten short shrift from transport expert Professor John Whitelegg.
This week, the Council started to ask people what they think about a new way to put a value on local bus services when deciding which to prioritise for support, but Professor Whitelegg has pointed out that both the Council's own spending on what he considers "white elephant" road building, and the government's plans to spend billions on the HS2 rail line, are huge in comparison compared to the "savings" that would be made through bus service cuts. And these "savings" would not be of any value to local taxpayers who lose their vital buses.
The council says will take account of responses received during the consultation and is proposing to agree and publish a new bus service assessment criteria by September, but has again highlighted the need for £300 million in cuts over the next four years as a result of government funding reductions, which means the subsidised buses users fought to save are still under threat.
Currently, most buses are run by commercial companies, but the council finances others which provide a valuable service but do not receive enough passenger fares to make a profit.
Transport planners apply guidelines stating that a subsidised service must still make 40% of its total operating costs through fares to offer enough value for money to be worthy of support. But this means that services which perform poorly from a financial perspective are more likely to be withdrawn when there's a need to reduce services irrespective of their value to the comm! unity they serve.
The county council is now reviewing its criteria, and proposing a new way to value buses using a scoring system based on factors including their contribution towards the economy, and helping people get to work, education, medical appointments, shops and leisure facilities. The system also takes into account whether alternative public transport is available, its impact on older and disabled people, and contribution to improving air quality in areas affected by pollution
"Public transport is vital to many people and I know how highly people value the bus services which are subsidised by the county council," County Councillor John Fillis, cabinet member for highways and transport, acknowledged. "The changes we are proposing aim to ensure that future decisions about which bus services we support with the limited funding we have available are made in a fairer way which takes full account of their value to the community they serve.
""We think our new criteria will result in better decisions being made in future, and we're grateful to receive feedback from people who would like to give us their views." "
|Professor John Whitelegg|
"The Heysham Link Road is not fully funded by central government and will cost the Council at least £10 million of its own cash (that means our cash).
"I am not impressed by the proposed new way of valuing bus services," he adds. "It is almost impossible to give things like access to health care a numerical value or ranking and the result will be a very technical data set that does not help very much. How will it balance things like older people getting to hospital appointments compared to younger people getting to work or college?"Putting numbers on things will involve judgements about the weight given to one kind of trip compared to another and that is a political judgement and not something that a lot of maths will help with."
John suggests that instead of assessing bus services from County Hall, transport chiefs should engage with local bus users at a local level - especially those in places like Skerton, the Lune Valley and the Ridge whose buts were set to be cut last time around - to find out exactly what they want from their service and how they use it.
"If the council really wants to understand the value of bus services it should organise a meeting in the Ridge Community Centre (for example), tell everyone on the Ridge well in advance about the meeting and ask those residents who turn up what they use the Ridge bus for, how often and what it means to them. For some this bus will be a really valuable lifeline that helps to avoid lonliness and isolation and the council needs to hear these stories and plug into the worries that people have and the way they live. The proposed scoring system can't do this.
"The council also needs to tell central government that it wants more money for socially valuable services," he argues. "It can quote the results of the Ridge meeting. It should not accept cuts in bus services and should tell government ministers that Lancashire does not accept the wrecking of lives that these cuts bring.
"It should also raise more cash from the council tax and say 'we are doing this to protect older people, vulnerable groups and do our level best to protect all our residents.'"
As for government plans to spend huge sums on other transport initiatives, he's hugely unimpressed.
|The costs of HS2 are "eye-watering" says John|
"This means an eye-watering, staggering amount of subsidy for rich people travelling to and from London (we know it will be rich people because high speed rail brings so-called 'premium fares').
"All of us, including Lancashire County Council should be saying that we want a clear ranking and prioritisation of transport spending in this order," he suggests.
"Firstly, create a local walking and cycling infrastructure; second, spending on local buses; thirdly, on local trains (eg trains to Morecambe, Preston, Carnforth, the Lake District); and, finally, regional trains (eg trains to Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds); and then, finally, trains to London.
"When government has fully funded those local and regional transport systems they are welcome to start funding trains to London - but not before!"
• The consultation with district and parish councils, passenger groups, bus operators, and community and voluntary transport groups, as well as inviting comments from members of the public, until Thursday 31st July 2014. To view the criteria and complete an online questionnaire go to www.lancashire.gov.uk/haveyoursay