Transport troubles

[Photo of bus campaigners demonstrating outside the WECA meeting in a bid to persuade the Mayor to restore reliable regular buses across North East Somerset. Photo credit: Clive Dellard.]

I AM grateful that a lot of public services in the area do include me when they send out press releases. That includes our elected local authorities – both B&NES and WECA.

Landing on my desk – this sunny Saturday morning – is a release from the Lib-Dems concerning what seems to be a marked difference of opinion between the Labour Metro Mayor and the Lib-Dem B&NES administration and their supporters.

Seems campaigners for more rural buses were frustrated after Mayor Norris refused to support bus services for cut-off, rural communities, at the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) on Friday.

The Leaders of three West of England Councils called for unused funds from the Mayor’s flagship schemes to be used to restore rural bus routes and support other priorities.

However, the Mayor chose to follow consultants’ advice to extend the inadequate Westlink demand responsive scheme and spend more on main route services.

Rural bus campaigner, Cllr Fiona Gourley, commented:

“It’s unbelievable that Mayor Norris refused to spend dedicated bus funding on restoring essential rural buses, despite residents and the Council Leaders telling him that this should be the priority. Instead, he overruled the Leaders and decided to keep throwing good money after bad with his failing pet projects.

“So many residents have told me how angry they are about WECA wasting money on cosmetic branding (£4m) and free bus tickets (£8m) whilst they have lost their regular buses. Over 1,000 people have signed our petition, which shows the strength of local frustration about the loss of essential bus services and the failing replacement offer of Westlink. The Mayor is spending too much on unpopular gimmicks.”

Grassroots bus proposal rejected

In July B&NES Council consulted bus operators, residents and councillors from all parties to draw up a cost-effective and innovative proposal for a bus network across B&NES to reconnect communities. This proposal was presented to the Mayor.

Since then, WECA has found an underspend of between £3m-£7m from its £57m Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) programme. This could be used to fund the bus proposal and other key initiatives.

The Local Authority Leaders called for this to be used for priorities including tickets for apprentices and young people in care, services in urban areas that could become commercial, and – most importantly for North East Somerset – rural services that can provide vital connections to communities which now cannot access essential services such as health care, employment, and education. The amendment to put forward these proposals was blocked by the Mayor.

B&NES Leader, Cllr Kevin Guy

Speaking in the meeting, Councillor Kevin Guy said:

“You’ve had our plan on your desk since July and you have up to £7 million spare to spend specifically on buses. You could fix that tomorrow, but instead of helping them, your office commissions expensive consultants’ reports designed to demonstrate that residents’ concerns are of low priority.”

Meanwhile, from the same meeting, a statement from the West of England Mayor on another transport idea he’s not too keen on.

West of England Mayor, Dan Norris

“I won’t waste a penny more of taxpayers’ money on an underground”, said Metro Mayor Dan Norris after there was stalemate on what to do next on new public transport at a West of England Mayoral Combined Authority meeting

In a report put to the committee, the West of England Mayor voted for overground options only, whereas council leaders voted to continue to explore underground options.

Mr Norris vetoed continued work on underground options. Council leaders refused to vote for overground-only work.

Mayor Dan Norris said: “I voted for overground options only because I believe an underground to be unaffordable and unrealistic.

“Overground options offer a really exciting opportunity. Buses, one day possibly trams or another new technology, like the system I saw in Coventry just recently, could make a real impact at pace on traffic and pollution. 

“I believe that we owe it to residents to focus all our energies and resources on delivering projects that might actually happen, and so make a difference to people’s lives. 

“We need a credible, affordable, realistic option to put to government.

“The Strategic Outline Business Case was developed over the last three years at considerable cost, at over £2m, was delivered eight months ago, and is a robust and substantive piece of work. 

“No amount of further analysis is going to change the basic facts. We need to start being honest with people and stop pretending that a project that everyone knows is not going to happen is somehow still a viable option.

“I am disappointed that no one would actually back getting on and delivering better overground public transport.” 

The report estimated an underground could cost up to £18 billion.