Below is a compilation of a number of email exchanges with Central Bedfordshire Council on the subject of bus provision across Central Bedfordshire (CBC). I’ve not edited any questions or answers, but have added words in brackets where necessary to make the meaning clear. My five questions are in bold and follow ups in italics, CBC answers are in red. I hope the exchanges will be of interest to those concerned with public transport across Bedfordshire and beyond. The responses do invite further questions which I will follow up elsewhere.
1. Can you advise if CBC are looking change how they administer bus services in the area – such as through ‘Advanced Quality Partnerships’ or ‘Enhanced Partnerships’ (recent example from Herts CC attached) as set out in the 2017 Bus Service Act?
CBC Response: As a relatively small authority, Central Bedfordshire Council does not currently propose to adopt an advanced quality partnership or an enhanced partnership with local bus operators.
JV follow up: Local Authorities are permitted to enter into AQP’s or EP’s with neighbouring local authorities. CBC would also be permitted to enter into a ‘voluntary bus partnership’ which have been successful in other areas. As CBC Councillors have gone on record stating “they don’t believe buses are the answer in Central Bedfordshire” I am not confident there is the political will at CBC to improve bus services – and to date no alternatives have been put forward by the Council to reduce the reliance on the car.
2. Can you confirm what changes if any will be made to bus times North of Biggleswade on the 188/190 route and how this service will integrate with services South of Biggleswade? Can you confirm that there will be no reductions (or advise us of any increases) to the current service levels or changes to the first/last services on the 188/190 route South of Biggleswade? * for info route North of Biggleswade is subsidised, route South of Biggleswade is run on commercial basis.
CBC Response: The 188 and 190 services to the north of Biggleswade are operated by Centrebus under contract to Central Bedfordshire Council and are not affected by the changes to the service south of Biggleswade. The 188 and 190 services between Biggleswade, Sandy & Potton will therefore continue to operate to the same timetable as they currently run. With regard to the comments you make about the current timetable for services to the north of Biggleswade, it may be possible to make some changes and the public transport team will look at these possibilities in due course. Where possible, we will aim to connect with rail services but this cannot always be guaranteed. (With regard to…) the issues you’ve raised about integration and provision of first and last services may be possible, however, I must re-iterate that the service (South of Biggleswade) will operate on a commercial basis and so this is at the discretion of the operator.
JV follow up: Having now checked both timetables I can see that there is no integration between the services and therefore passengers wishing to travel through Biggleswade to villages North and South will often have a lengthy wait of up to an hour to carry on their journey. It has already been brought to our attention that this affects children going to school in Biggleswade. Further, looking at the timetable I believe that Centrebus will be running the route North of Biggleswade with two buses rather than the three they needed to run the full route. Will the subsidy to Centrebus be reduced accordingly as their financial outlay will be reduced?
Integration of services should be a priority where you have control over them (as is the case with subsidised services). Again, I understand that you will be cautious of over-promising, but a timeline of when you intend to take a look at this would be very welcome. I do understand that commercial routes are solely at the discretion of the operator (we can ‘thank’ the 1985 Transport Act for that) however I’m sure that Central Bedfordshire Council could bring some pressure to bear on the bus operators to better integrate services. On this issue you would have my full support. I note you say, ‘may be possible’. I understand you will be cautious of over-promising, but can you advise if you are prepared to formally raise the issue with Grant Palmer?
CBC further response:
• The amended 74 and the amended 188/190 are totally separate services so it is difficult to ensure that there is integration between them. For this to happen the timetable of one or other of the services may need to be significantly revised which would of course disadvantage current users of that particular service. We may however be able to look at this point further as we review the timetables for services to the north of Biggleswade (as mentioned below).
• We have carried out monitoring of the current service from Langford into Biggleswade and there do not appear to be any schoolchildren travelling on the route. Centrebus have confirmed that they have not sold any season tickets to schoolchildren for use on the current service.
• We currently fund Centrebus to provide services between Biggleswade and Sandy/Potton only: as the timetable for these services is not changing there is no justification for reviewing the subsidy. The same subsidy also covers the 85/85A Biggleswade town services which are not affected by the changes to the 188/190. We will be reviewing these services over the coming weeks as we consider how best to use the Better Bus funding that has recently been announced.
• We have already raised with Grant Palmer the issue of the timings of the buses in the light of matters that have been raised but the company do not have any plans to amend the timetable at present.
3. ~ It is four years since CBC published their Passenger Transport Strategy (identified as the Public Transport Strategy in some of your literature). This pre-dates the Bus Services Act. When do you intend to review the strategy?
CBC Response: The Council’s Passenger Transport Strategy was adopted in November 2016 and will be considered by the Overview & Scrutiny Committee later this year. This review may result in changes to the current strategy and could include consideration of the air quality issues you have raised.
JV follow up: Will there be any public consultation as part of this review?
CBC further response: It is too early to say what form the review will take but it is likely that it will involve further public consultation.
4. ~ You will be aware that the Department for Transport have provisionally awarded CBC £154,358 to improve buses in the area across 2020/21. However, this award may be withheld in part or full if the ‘statement of intent’ form does not contain sufficient evidence, including that of consultation with local bus users and residents. Can you set out how CBC have attempted to advertise this potential funding, and how it has consulted with local bus users and residents?
CBC Response: On 6th February, the DfT advised us of additional support for bus services in 2020/2021 announced by DfT on 6th February. We are now consulting with local MPs, town and parish councils and our own Central Bedfordshire Council elected members about how this funding should be used. As democratically elected representatives and community leaders, we believe these individuals and organisations are very well placed to give us good feedback, which will of course be carefully considered.
JV follow up: This approach does not appear to strictly meet the requirements of the Department for Transport’s ‘Funding for Supported Bus Services in 2020-21’ criteria.
CBC further response: You will be aware that the background guidance for the Better Buses funding application process says that local authorities should demonstrate that their proposals reflect the needs of local residents and that all local MPs should be consulted. We have taken this further by also consulting with elected members of Central Bedfordshire Council and with town and parish councils. Many of these consultees have shared the information widely with those they represent.
The guidance also says authorities should demonstrate engagement with the public: as you will know the funding was announced on 6th February with the funding to be available from April so these timescales did not permit a full public consultation so in addition to the discussions with elected representatives mentioned above we have also consulted with public transport user groups that we are aware of: you would of course be welcome to make any comments and suggestions on behalf of Bedfordshire Public Transport Watch, should you wish to do so.
5. ~ In CBC’s ‘Air Quality Action Plan 2018-2023’ it states that the Council recognise the importance of improving and promoting public transport. Can you advise how CBC have both improved and promoted public transport across Central Bedfordshire since 2018?
CBC Response: We have invested significant amounts in the provision of infrastructure such as bus stops and shelters, with real time information screens provided at key stops. We work hard to ensure that up to date timetable information is provided at all bus stops with display cases across Central Bedfordshire, and to install additional timetable cases in appropriate locations. We do not produce printed publicity material as this can go out of date very quickly after publication but we do publicise details of bus service changes on our website where we also show maps of bus services across Central Bedfordshire which are regularly updated.
We ensure that details of bus services are passed to the National Travel Line to facilitate online and app-based journey planners and to ensure the correct operation of real time information systems. We have a budget for supported bus services which we use to provide services that aren’t operated commercially as outlined in our published Passenger Transport Strategy, we identify and secure section 106 funds to enhance and improve services around new developments and we liaise regularly with bus operators to ensure services continue to meet the needs of local communities.
Follow up reading
Hertfordshire County Council Enhanced Partnership
Bedfordshire Public Transport Watch