Tuesday, 3 September 2013

New Ways To Pay?

Who pays for lightly-used but socially-necessary bus services?
In my previous post, we saw how, when public money is involved, one man’s “public service” is another man’s “dreadful waste of money”.
Bus services may be profitable commodities in areas of high demand, but in other scenarios, they are the catalyst to a civilised society, where the value is appreciated, rather than the cost.
A “lightly used” bus service may cost the taxpayer unnecessarily in some people’s eyes, but to the lonely pensioner, it is the gateway to life itself. And what price do you put on that?
With Council funds being spread as thinly now as they have ever been, sentiment isn’t high on the list. Little-used subsidised bus services face the chop if they don’t meet certain criteria. If Granny can’t make it to the shops anymore, that’s unfortunate.
But in times of austerity, new ways of thinking often emerge. It doesn’t have to be the Council that subsidises some bus services.
In South Yorkshire, an innovative, yet entirely logical idea has been suggested – get the shops to pay for the buses that bring the shoppers to them.
South Yorkshire PTE are to ask supermarkets to contribute to their tendered services bill, which, on the face of it, is a decent idea. Public purse pays for bus to take shoppers to supermarket, which then makes profit out of said shopper. Why not help support the bus that brings them there in the first place?
Or is it such a good idea?
SYPTE’s Spokesman even offers a veiled threat to divert the bus service away from supermarkets that won’t pay to ones that do.
But it remains to be seen who will be asked to stump up, and how much. The Sheffield Chamber Retail Forum has reservations. Their members are also facing rising costs and are finding it difficult to make a profit. It might be one thing to go dangling the cap to the likes of Tesco, but what about smaller outlets? And what of the threat to switch routes to shops that do pay? Would patronage fall away because the bus user / shopper preferred the other outlet and can no longer reach there easily? There are all sorts of questions to be answered, and precedents may be set.
Another solution to the lack of public subsidy is to pay for it yourself!
This might seem a rich man’s dream, but one local Councillor in Walsall has staked a substantial part of his Councillor’s Allowance to procure an evening and Sunday service for local residents.
Councillor Richard Worrall is no stranger to public transport. Formally Chair of Centro some years ago, Mr Worrall was re-elected Labour Councillor for Rushall / Shelfield in the Walsall area last year. He also campaigns in favour of the National Concessionary pass and has undertaken several England-wide trips to raise awareness.
But spend his hard-earned subsidising a bus route that not even Centro were prepared to spend money on?
Residents in part of Rushall used to have a good service, 7 days per week across morning, daytimes and evenings, thanks to National Express West Midlands’ trunk 997 route, which linked Birmingham City Centre with Walsall. But when NXWM re-routed part of the service, the area had to rely on a Centro subsidised service, but evenings and Sunday services have disappeared due to low usage.
It’s the usual dilemma. Some people still need it, but it falls below Centro’s threshold to throw public money at it.
Step forward Councillor Worrall, who has decided to subsidise a Sunday shopping hours service on the route – 35A – which started on Sunday, and will initially operate until 22 December.
How much is Mr Worrall shelling out? Likely well into 4 figures, he says. But he’s confident that if patronage is decent, he will look at an evening service next.
Centro have helped him set it up, and the actual service will be operated by WMSNT (West Midlands Special Needs Transport), the Ring & Ride operator which is increasingly itself operating standard bus services alongside its more specialist operations to make up the shortfall it itself is experiencing due to funding cuts.
As ever, it is down to the usual requirement.
“Now it will be up to the residents to demonstrate the need for this service by putting bums on seats”, says Councillor Worrall.
I wish him well with this venture, as I do with his counterparts in South Yorkshire as they try and prise money from hitherto unorthodox sources.

Despite the pain of the cutbacks, the spirit of innovation is as strong as ever. 

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