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Have mayor’s hopes of bus franchising to solve Cambridgeshire’s public transport problems already broken down?





Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money would be needed every year to bring the region’s bus service into public control, a meeting heard.

But councillors warn that signing an “enormous blank cheque” to private operators should not allow them to “cherry pick” the service they want to run.

Labour mayor Dr Nik Johnson in Ely. Picture: Keith Heppell
Labour mayor Dr Nik Johnson in Ely. Picture: Keith Heppell

The comments came as the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority board agreed to an interim enhanced partnership with bus companies as a “stepping stone” to wider reform.

This will give the authority greater control over bus services in areas such as fare structures, but would be limited in its ability to bring large-scale network change.

However, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayor Dr Nik Johnson, who has long argued the case for franchising of bus services in the county, told the board that the business case for franchising is “taking longer than we hoped”.

“We are developing a business case for franchising and will bring it to the board for a decision to consult in the long term. But that business case is complete and it is taking longer than we hoped. Meanwhile, we are proposing an enhanced partnership with bus operators.”

Dr Johnson said he hoped the partnerships would “maximise the service and coordination within the current market system”.

“We will bring this forward this summer as we push the parallel work on franchising business case,” he said.

Cllr Anna Bailey (Con, Little Downham) said bus franchising could “at best” take four years before getting to the point of implementation, and possibly longer if there were any legal challenges.

She told the meeting on Wednesday (20 March): “I remain sceptical about franchising, [but] absolutely open-minded about the case for it.”

Since 1986, bus services in England – but not London – have been deregulated, meaning they are mainly run by private bus companies that have control over their routes, timetables, ticket options, fares and bus frequency.

However, the Bus Services Act gave city regions the power to introduce bus franchising in 2017.

Under a franchising model, private operators will still be contracted to run bus services but the Combined Authority will have greater control over fares, routes and timetables and the ability to reinvest any profit back into the network to improve services for passengers.

The leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council noted that previous estimates revealed franchising could require an annual revenue investment of between £20m and £25m.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership had planned to raise £50m for public transport improvements under its now-scrapped congestion charge plans.

“There does seem to be a feeling of determination around the organisation to go down the franchising route and ultimately that might be the right thing to do. But, if we haven’t got a clear route to where the full required investment is coming from, it could turn out to be very much the wrong thing,” Cllr Bailey added.

Cllr Bailey acknowledged that franchising gives the authority “absolute control over the network” but recognised it had “a lot” of risk attached to it.

She said: “I note that Stagecoach is welcoming the CPCA actively pursuing franchising, that’s their public line. They might be saying that with a bit of a poker face, of course, but I do you think that should give us pause for thought that the reason they like it is because of the current economic conditions around public transport, and they know that in a franchise model, the CPCA will take all the risk and they will still make the money.

“We have to be mindful of these things. I’m just simply anxious that we properly keep our minds fully open, which mine is to both methods of improving our bus service network, and we don’t rush blindly to the franchising option.”

Stagecoach buses at the Trumpington Park & Ride site in Cambridge. Picture: Richard Marsham
Stagecoach buses at the Trumpington Park & Ride site in Cambridge. Picture: Richard Marsham

Her comments were echoed by the leader of Fenland District Council, Cllr Chris Boden.

He said: “I do think Stagecoach has taken us for a ride in the relationship with us over the past 18 months to two years, for which I don’t blame the Combined Authority, I blame Stagecoach, let me be quite clear.

“We’ve got to be very careful that we don’t continue to be taken for a ride by Stagecoach.

“I can well understand why they liked the idea that they lose all risk and managed to continue to make their profits.

“When we are looking at the way in which we go down the enhanced partnership or franchising route, we’ve got to be aware that we are not dealing with organisations who are necessarily benevolent in their attitude and being hard-headed about this.

“I think it is really important and ensuring that we don’t sign an enormous blank cheque for the benefit of private operators, I think, is a very important point as well.”

In a report to the meeting, it states that enhanced partnerships “allow for a collaborative approach with existing bus operators”.

But warns: “The effectiveness of an EP is highly dependent on the degree of consensus and collaboration among participating operators”.

In its draft bus strategy, the Combined Authority stated that bus franchising could be the “best way of delivering a modern, integrated transport system”.

In a report to Wednesday’s meeting, it stated: “In order to maximise the benefits of bus reform as early as possible, whilst progressing franchising and the audit process, in the interests of effective management, we are preparing an approach for an interim enhanced partnership.

“This is in line with recently-issued DfT guidelines which require the use of enhanced partnerships as interim arrangements whilst auditing work is progressing.

“We therefore propose further collaborative working with local bus operators to investigate the possibility of an enhanced partnership being formed to act as a ‘stepping stone’ to further, wider reform.”

Cambridgeshire County Council leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha said it was “increasingly clear” that to have any kind of rural public transport it will need a public subsidy.

“If millions of pounds of public money are going into bus services, it should not be possible for operators like Stagecoach to just cherry-pick the bits that they want to have and unfortunately, that is the situation that we are currently in,” she said.

Cllr Nethsingha (Lib Dem, Newnham) agreed that enhanced partnerships are needed as an interim measure, but warned that they are unlikely to deliver the level of control over the network that residents would expect for the “quantities of public money that are likely to be going into a bus service”.

Cllr Boden added: “I’m disappointed to see so much money being expended in order to produce so little result and that’s not a problem with officers, it’s a matter of fact about how expensive it is to subsidise our services and that worries me a great deal.”

The meeting also heard details of an investment package, funded by the mayoral precept, that includes the introduction of new services as well as improvements to existing routes – many of which were suggested by residents who took part in a survey in December.

These 30 new routes and improvements are now being worked on with a view to being introduced “as soon as possible”.

Additionally, there will be a £1 fare for people under 25 years of age, which will commence early summer.

There will be improvements to bus stops and shelters. The first stage was a survey which identified almost 3,000 bus stops around the region.

The second phase will be to identify shelters that would benefit from investment to improve safety and security and ease of waiting. The Combined Authority is also in the process of introducing Demand Responsive Transport and trials are currently taking place across the region.

It is also working with Stagecoach to mitigate the impact of recent cuts to the service they have announced.

The package of improvements follows the launch of the Combined Authority’s Road to Better Buses Strategy in March 2023.

Cllr Nethsingha added: “One of the things that slightly worries me about this list is the frequency of some of these services.

“An awful lot of them are intended to be hourly and I’m slightly concerned that by making them only hourly, we actually reduce the number of people who would consider using them.

“The key thing is to try and get more people onto the buses because the more people using them, the lower the cost per passenger for the subsidy.”

Dr Johnson said after the meeting: “I am very excited to see this package of improvements approved. We are delivering on our promise to transform the bus network with more to come.

“Having a reliable and regular bus service across the region which keeps our residents connected is one of our top priorities and we are investing a great deal into improving the network.”

Speaking after the meeting, Darren Roe, managing director of Stagecoach East, said: “We have long said that we will be happy to work under any model that our elected officials choose. We are bus people –we wake up every morning wanting to run the best possible bus service for our local communities - we are not elected officials, so it is not our place to choose which model we work under.

“Over the past few years, the local bus industry has had to face challenges unprecedented in their scale, such as the Covid pandemic and congestion. I would like to think we have faced those challenges with a principle of always looking to do the right thing. At Stagecoach East, we are training ever more local people to be bus drivers and this is having very real results in fewer cancellations - we now routinely operate 99% of the miles we are timetabled to run each week.

“We have made a huge investment – along with our partners in government – in a fleet of new electric buses, and the charging infrastructure to support that.

“We also talk to elected officials, meet bus user groups and attend local parish council public meetings on an ongoing basis about our routes and how best to maintain, support and promote those. And we are very happy to continue those discussions.

“As an industry, we have established the CP Bus Alliance, a trade body for our region’s bus operators, which is providing a forum for our different businesses to find solutions to problems together.

“We would never claim that everything is right with our local transport network – our region, for example, faces important challenges around congestion, network disruption, parking enforcement and rural exclusion – some of these are not our problems to fix, but we will always have a view and work collectively with any elected official or local authority to improve the service for our customers.

“Bus services are always emotive within local communities, and I would ask all elected officials to reach out and talk to us so we have, at least, the opportunity to discuss concerns, rumors and myths, or simply fact-check.”



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