Swindon Council has announced that it is updating its Transport Strategy. It explains how in a document entitled “Towards an updated local bus Strategy for Swindon Borough Council”. The general thrust of the document is towards a “fully commercial” service and for the Council to play “an enabling role in supporting the development of commercial bus operations”. Reading this my first instinct was to ask the question are they looking to flog off our municipal bus service? Or, who knows, even give it away to some private bus operator, Stagecoach, for example. Or an amalgamation?
With this in mind I sent in a number of written questions for Public Question Time at Thursday night’s Council meeting. The key one was: “Is the Council committed to maintaining its ownership of Thamesdown Transport?” The Lead member responded, “There are no plans to change ownership at this time.”
At this time? This is a politician’s answer but the implication is quite clear. A big question mark hangs over the future of Swindon’s Municipal bus service. Why else would the Lead member not give a commitment that they would continue to own the service?
Of course, this Council, or rather its ruling group, has consistently said ownership does not matter. But it does. None other than the director of Thamesdown Transport, in a recent meeting on Parks, explained why. It was advantageous for the Council to own Thamesdown Transport because its large network gave it the ability to crosssubsidise services. In other words money they made on the more lucrative services could be used on services which were socially necessary. Private companies would not do that.
He was right. That’s why the aim of moving towards “fully commercial” services will inevitably undermine any social and environmental aims. I’ve written elsewhere about the contradiction between the “three key principles” of the update and the social and environmentale environmental aims contained in the Council’s Transport Strategy.
Although in a response to one of my questions the Lead Member said that “social or environmental factors will always be considered as factors in determining what the ideal bus network will be”, if the service becomes “fully commercial” we can expect them to be “considered” and then ignored. At any rate they are not included as “key principles” in the update.
Judge the response to my questions for yourself. I’ll comment on them myself later.
Question 1. Is the Council committed to maintaining its ownership of Thamesdown Transport?
Answer. There are no plans to change ownership at this time.
Question 2. If the local bus service moves towards a “fully commercial service” does this not imply downgrading the importance of the social and environmental purpose of a municipal bus service?
Answer. Thamesdown Transport is owned by the Borough Council, however, we have no control over its operation of bus services. This is because it is an ‘arms length bus company’ and follows legislation as laid down in the 1985 Transport Act. We as an authority cannot restrict competition in our area. Thamesdown Transport operate their own commercial bus services and compete for tenders the same as any other bus company who wishes to. It is the Council who has a duty to procure such bus services it feels are socially necessary but which are not commercially viable. So since the 1985 Act the role of Thamesdown has changed as previous to this date it would have operated profit and nonprofit making routes.
Question 3. What does the second ‘key principle’ of the Council’s update of its transport strategy mean when it says:
“Bus operators should be challenged to fulfill their role in providing services in ways that best meet the needs of the local community.”
Should their ‘needs’ be determined by the yardstick of a commodity? Or should they be determined by social and environmental factors?
Answer. The Council as part of the development of the new bus strategy is consulting with local bus operators who operate services in the Borough. As part of this consultation it is asking them a number of questions to seek their views and this will help us in formulating the new updated strategy. We ideally are seeking what facilities the Council can put in place, which would enable an operator to improve the level of service it provides commercially. At the same time we wish to focus on noncommercial but socially necessary routes and explore how they could become sustainable in the longer term similar to for example Section 106 funded services which once funding finishes the service becomes commercially viable. It is an ideal opportunity for operators to understand the needs of the local community in shaping bus services or in reviewing them. At the same time social and environmental factors will always be considered as factors in determining what the ideal bus network should be.
Question 4. Given the increasing gap between government subsidy and the cost of pensioners free passes will the Council press the government for an increase in the grant?
Answer. Swindon Borough Council participates in Department of Transport consultations and surveys about concessionary travel and future funding and how grants are calculated. The funding of concessionary travel has been an area of significant debate between national and local government for many years. Swindon Borough Council has consistently supported proposals that would increase its grant allocation for this service, however no significant changes have been introduced into the funding arrangements for unitary authorities for some years.
Question 5. Does the Council support the continuation of free passes for all pensioners?
Answer. The Councuil supports the coalition government’s efforts to restore fiscal esponsibility and tackle the unsustainable spending that started in 2001. Swindon Borough Council participates in Department for Transport consultations or surveys about concessionary travel, future funding and how grants are calculated. The Council does not use the Department of Transport calculations for reimbursement but has negotiated an agreement with the bus operators, which is acceptable to both parties.