Passions ran high at a recent B&NES council meeting where councillors called for ‘radical reform’ to a bus system they consider ‘fundamentally broken’.

Local representatives angrily criticised the government for poaching bus drivers, leading to driver shortages, and for its failure to properly fund public transport services. 

Councillors called on the Mayor of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) to reinstate bus routes and work on bus franchising, to give more democratic control over public transport, as well as stop-gap solutions such as demand-responsive minibuses.

Bathavon South Councillor, Matt McCabe, who proposed the motion, commented:

“Our local bus services are in a sorry state, and this just goes to show the failure of privatisation of public transport. This dogma has led to monopoly companies, high fares, unreliable services, and services that don’t meet the needs of residents.

“Ultimately, Councils have very little say over bus services. We pay our transport levy contribution to WECA and then we have to lobby the Mayor to beg the bus companies not to axe this or that route. 

“One person can’t possibly know the importance of every bus service across the West of England. That local connection is vital to understanding why a route is so important and it’s why we’re calling for bus services to be brought back under public control. Transport authorities need to have the power to run buses directly and respond directly to what local people need. It’s just common sense.”

B&NES Cabinet member for Climate and Sustainable Travel, Cllr Sarah Warren, said she was ‘furious’ about the ‘contempt’ with which vulnerable residents have been treated. She said:

“Between a government that has, as ever, stacked the odds against communities and in favour of big companies, a West of England Mayor whose only purpose appears to be political stunts and photo ops, and the second largest regional bus operator in the UK, whose strapline says it “makes journeys easier for customers; across Bath and North East Somerset it’s our most vulnerable residents, those without access to their own car, who have been caught in the middle and treated with contempt.

“The Lib Dems have been fighting for months to save local bus services. We have said from the start that without a reliable, comprehensive and affordable bus service, people will be cut off from shops, services, leisure, employment and education. 

“Our bus industry is broken almost beyond repair, and this government, which is dismantling the fabric of society with accelerating speed, is asleep at the wheel.”

“We will continue to fight for better bus services for B&NES residents.”

During the debate, many Councillors shared concrete examples of the impact bus cuts would have across the district.

Councillor McCabe highlighted the impact of the curtailing of the 178 bus, commenting:

“The 178 is the only link to Bristol for Marksbury as well as other villages. Undermining this route will cause real hardship for young people unable to get to school, vulnerable people unable to get to work, and elderly people unable to access NHS services. These are all protected characteristics under the Equalities Act.”

Cllr Warren highlighted the impact on school children from the loss of route 11:

“11-year-olds from Bathampton used to catch the number 11 from the centre of the village into town and walked on or changed service for schools in the South of the city. Now, with just an hourly D1 service, they’ll walk up to Warminster Road for 7.16, they will be deposited at the bus station in darkness at 7.27, to walk on and arrive 45 minutes early at school. Alternatively, it has been suggested they might walk a mile in the wrong direction across Bathampton Meadows, in absolute pitch darkness, to pick up a service in Batheaston.”

The number 20 bus previously linked communities outside central Bath with key destinations such as the RUH and city centre. The removal of this essential route is having a negative impact on many residents including elderly people in Weston who now have no bus link to Julian Road and the St James’ Surgery, where many older residents are patients.

Weston Councillor Shelley Bromley said:

“The discontinuation of the No 20 bus service will affect many people in Weston and in particular senior citizens, many of whom have written to Ruth and me. The No 20 bus served Weston High Street, Weston Road and Julian Road before progressing down Milsom Street into the City.

“A number of Weston residents are patients at the St James’ Street surgery and have no other means of getting there, other than to call a taxi. They also used this bus service to get to RVP and other areas south of the river, including the University of Bath to attend arts exhibitions and talks.

“The cancellation of this service further inhibits older people’s enjoyment of their retirement and will inevitably lead to a greater use of cars, which is not supportive of B&NES’ Council’s drive for Net Zero by 2030.”

Councillors also highlighted the difficulties less frequent buses cause for passengers. The West of England bus service improvement plan calls for increased frequency so passengers can ‘turn up and go’, yet many routes have seen their timetables cut this year.

Councillor Jess David, who represents Moorlands ward in South Bath, commented:

“The number 8 service serves the Moorlands estate and connects residents with the Moorland Road shopping area and the City Centre. I know numerous residents, many of them elderly, who use this service and rely on it, and are seriously concerned about its future.

“Under the latest timetable this bus is now running only every 45 minutes with a reduced service in the evening and at weekends. I am very grateful that we have still this service, but with repeated cuts I am seriously concerned that it is effectively being salami sliced away and is not a reliable way for residents to get to work, to school or into the city.”

Odd Down Councillor, Joel Hirst, spoke about the loss of bus route 42, another route connecting residential areas with the RUH. He said:

“I am incensed about the loss of the Number 42 – The Odd Down Park and Ride to the RUH Bus. The impact to workers at the RUH, patients, family of patients and not least the climate impact is immense.

“People are now struggling to make their valuable hospital appointments, staff are struggling to get to work on time, ill patients and worried families are struggling to find parking spots before important hospital appointments – and there is a huge increase in car journeys to the RUH. You could not make it up. Our residents deserve better!”

Meanwhile, Metro Mayor Dan Norris is due to meet First Bus boss Doug Claringbold next week to discuss the shortage of bus drivers in the region. There are jobs for around 200!

The Mayor will also find out about the new bus driver recruitment team funded by the West of England Combined Authority helping bus companies target new would-be drivers.

Metro Mayor Dan Norris with new driver recruits Giusy Caternicchia and Kai Foday

The recruitment drive is being backed by tailored careers support and training from the West of England Combined Authority with a single access point for people interested in becoming a bus driver.

A region-wide campaign featuring current drivers that highlights the rewards of driving a bus will kick off shortly as well as targeted work to encourage more women and people from ethnic minorities who are currently underrepresented in the industry to consider driving a bus.

Dan Norris said: “Sorting the driver shortage is a vital step to fix the bus network. Do you or someone you know fancy a career change? Then why not become a bus driver? Your community needs your skills to get vital buses moving. Under my leadership, I’m determined the West of England trains more bus drivers”.

Editor’s note. No mention of rates of pay here. Aren’t we hearing drivers have been switching to jobs in haulage where the pay is much better!?