Bus services in Central Bedfordshire
Public bus services across Central Bedfordshire are run by independent commercial companies. Some of these companies are locally based, others are part of larger national operating groups.
Legislation allows any licensed bus operator to provide services on a commercial basis. Operators are free to decide which route services should take, which stops should be served, the timetable to be followed and the fares to be charged. These services do not receive any subsidy from the local authority.
In order to start a new service or to alter or cancel an existing one, a bus operator needs to give 42 days’ notice to the Traffic Commissioner, who is part of the central government Department for Transport. This notice period can only be reduced or waived in exceptional circumstances. Bus operators are required to notify the local authority where the service operates 28 days before the 42 day notice period begins.
Bus operators will generally only provide services on a commercial basis if they think they will be profitable. This normally means services where there are significant numbers of fare-paying passengers travelling regularly. Commercially provided services do not therefore cover all the needs of bus users, especially in rural areas, outside peak times and at weekends. In these circumstances, a local authority can step in and either contract with a bus operator directly to provide a service thought to be necessary, or pay for additional journeys or stops on an existing route.
Unfortunately though due to budget constraints local authorities cannot afford to provide all journeys that local people may wish to see: services have to be prioritised within the limits of the funding that is available and may have to follow a more indirect route in order to take in all locations that require a service.
Central Bedfordshire Council’s Passenger Transport Strategy
The Council’s Passenger Transport Strategy, adopted in 2016, aims to provide links from local communities into nearby towns for access to employment, education, shopping, healthcare and other services, where there are no commercially provided alternatives and where there is a proven demand. The Council only subsidises services between 8am and 6:30pm on Mondays to Fridays and between 8am and 3pm on Saturdays. We do not support services on Sundays. This is to enable the largest number of people to benefit from supported services as, in general, passenger numbers on bus services are much lower outside of these core hours.
We currently spend around £1.1 million a year supporting bus services that are thought to be necessary but are not provided on a commercial basis. Local authorities do not have to provide public bus services by law: they are provided on a discretionary basis, so it is essential that we make the most of the funding that is available for bus service provision.
Section 106 and CIL Contributions
As part of the planning process, we receive financial contributions from new housing and commercial developments to be used to mitigate the impact of the new developments on the local community and infrastructure. These contributions are known as Section 106 or CIL contributions and in some cases can be used to support bus services to the new developments. We currently spend around £600,000 a year supporting bus services in this way. However, these funds are usually only available for a limited time and once used, they are not replaced, so if a bus service to a new development fails to attract enough passengers over its period of funding it may ultimately be reduced or replaced.
English National Concessionary Travel Scheme
We administer the English National Concessionary Travel (‘bus pass’) Scheme on behalf of central government which is available to qualifying Central Bedfordshire residents to allow elderly and disabled people to travel for free on bus services throughout England and Wales. We currently spend around £1.8m a year reimbursing bus operators for providing free travel in this way.
Bus Services Operator Grants
We currently receive around £136,000 a year from central government in the form of Bus Services Operator Grants (BSOG). This grant is available to be used to support bus services or to provide infrastructure (such as bus stops, shelters or real time information systems) that supports bus services. In 2019/20, we used approximately £66,500 of this grant to directly support bus services via reimbursements to operators, £56,000 to provide, maintain and update bus shelters and £14,000 to provide real time information for supported services.
Local Authority Bus Service Support Grant
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department for Transport provided us with a 12-week grant, to be used to support bus services that have been affected by, or needed to be adjusted because of, the impact of the crisis.
We've continued to pay operators, in full, for providing supported bus services during this and have continued to reimburse operators at pre-crisis levels for carrying concessionary bus pass holders. The additional government grant has been used to cover revenue shortfalls on supported bus services, caused by the significant decline in the numbers of passengers travelling. These measures have ensured that vital services have continued to operate during the pandemic.
Better deals for buses
We've been allocated £154,358 as part of the ‘Better Deal for Buses’ funding announced by the Department for Transport (DfT) in February 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the DfT has suggested this funding could be used to ensure bus services remain operational during and in the aftermath of the crisis, when patronage is significantly reduced.
We will use 100% of the funding to maintain acceptable levels of service on our tendered network, to meet the revenue shortfall caused by the reduction of patronage due to the COVID-19 crisis as we have been doing with the Local Authority Bus Service Support Grant since March. This will enable passengers to be confident that the existing pre-COVID service network will be maintained and will not be reduced or revised, purely on the grounds of lost revenue. The payments will be made on a four-week basis, after operators have submitted patronage and revenue levels to us. We will then use the funding to top up the shortfall to the full cost of operation.