The Baroness, The Arguments and the Bus Pass

bus pass

No, it isn’t a children’s bedtime story. Rather, a tale of passion, politics and the good old travelling public – with a bit of potential skulduggery thrown in for good measure.

As their Lordships debate the upcoming Buses Bill, Baroness McIntosh made the sort of suggestion that might have gotten her thrown in the dungeons hundreds of years previous.

In reference to the great concessionary fares debate;

“For me, the game-changer would be one simple thing: to keep concessionary fares on rural bus services but allow those eligible to pay a contribution.” 

Sound reasonable? The former MP for Thirsk & Malton was reacting to what seems to be the perennial discussion about the lack of money in the kitty to keep rural bus services going. “What’s the point in having a “free” bus pass if there’s no bus service to use it on” seems to be the mantra for our age, if you have any interest in rural transport.

I placed the article on my Facebook page and awaited the much-expected fireworks. I wasn’t disappointed. Around 80-odd comments later, I’d managed to gain repetitive-strain injury to my typing finger, someone spectacularly telling me he was fed up with it all and blocking me (!) and someone accusing the Government of punishing senior citizens for Brexit. Ah, the crazy World of social media.

What all this Facebook shenanigans does prove though, is the almighty mess that the Government has gotten itself into with the concessionary pass – and how it will be anything but simple politically to dig itself out of it.

Ah, you cry! The Government already thought of that – by handing the little issue of paying for it all down to local authorities. A classic bit of political manoeuvring Sir Humphrey himself might be proud of. Nowt to do with us, Guv. The authorities need to manage their budgets better. But whatever the situation now, the fact remains that somewhere, somehow, this issue is going to have to be addressed. The cost of giving senior citizens “free” bus travel simply isn’t sustainable in the long-term.

Let me make one thing very clear – lest I am accused of being “anti” concessionary pass. I support the concept whole-heartedly. It is what a civilised society should do. “It’s all very well taking away something from others that you don’t need yourselves. Sorry, Mr Tonks.” roared one individual on the Facebook thread, mistakenly presuming I’m someone who thinks it shouldn’t be provided. Sadly, one thing I AM convinced of, is that it won’t be there when I reach retirement age in twenty-odd years time (if we even have a “retirement” age by then). The problem – of course – like many other things, is that there is a rather large funding-gap emerging, when it comes to reimbursing bus operators for providing this service.

And yet, it’s so vitally precious. You can’t put a monetary figure on what the freedom of a free bus pass brings to some elderly people. I’m sure there are number-crunchers who can say that for every £1 spent on providing the free pass, “x”-amount is beneficial to the local economy, blah,blah,blah. But what price do you put on the social benefits of being able to get out of the house and be part of society? You can’t put a price, of course. And that is reason enough to keep the concessionary pass where it is.

Former Chairman of the Transport Committee of the West Midlands County Council Phil Bateman MBE made an important point. “You need to look at this the other way round, take concessionary fares away and you will lose even more of the bus network. It’s the OAP demand that keeps networks alive. Take their travel away, or reduce it, and the impact on networks will be severe. Plus then you will also have job losses within the bus operators, that will then deliver more loss in retail in town and city centres, as less travel journeys are made”. Food for thought.

The Baroness was suggesting that pass holders might be willing to pay up to half of the fare in order to keep the service going. I’ve heard this proposal many times before, not least from pensioners themselves at Bus Users Surgeries I used to organise. But this, for me, is an unworkable half-measure. It was the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg (remember him?) back in 2011 who suggested “means-testing” for some pensioner benefits. It went down like a lead balloon. This followed an earlier report by the consultancy Oxera for the Local Government Association that concluded “Although the scheme has helped to improve social inclusion, there is also evidence that the scheme is targeted too widely, benefiting many people on higher incomes and with access to cars (i.e, those not affected by social exclusion and accessibility issues before the introduction of the scheme).” 

The LGA distanced itself from the report’s findings, saying “This recommendation is problematic as it could suggest an end to the current national concession, which is a popular policy that benefits millions of people and is highly valued by councils and their communities.

“Means testing for concessionary fares is not the solution. Take up of the scheme would fall drastically, the benefits it delivers greatly reduced and administrative burdens significantly increased.”

Free off-peak bus passes in England were introduced in 2008, but almost immediately some local authorities were complaining about the shortfall in funding to pay the bus operators.

Back to the Facebook debate. One person suggested that the bus operators “are able to choose to operate within the statutory obligations, or not.” And there is the rub. They can’t. Of course they should carry pass holders, but equally, they should be paid adequate recompense for doing so. Here are commercial businesses, with rising costs year-on-year, faced with a declining amount paid for carrying a significantly large number of their passengers. What happens? They increase their fares to compensate – which leaves those that DO pay a cash fare having to stump up even more – making the bus an even less attractive proposition. But please don’t assume that I’m creating a “young v old” argument (which the media has disgracefully created, especially over the Brexit argument). I’m merely pointing out the folly of getting on a bus in Shrewsbury the other week (Border Hopping – X75 Shrewsbury – Llanidloes) and being told it’s a £12 fare, whilst many concessionary pass holders followed me on for free. No problem with that on the face of it, but the operator most certainly won’t be getting £12 for every “beep” of the concessionary pass.

And that brings us to the very heart of the debate – and the intervention by the Baroness. This becomes it’s most acute in deep rural areas. The bus routes aren’t even being operated on a commercial basis. The local authority is propping them up, and is struggling to even do that because they haven’t got the money to do so. Some have received up to 40% cuts to their budget. So if some pensioners can afford to pay, isn’t it reasonable to say so? Actually, I think it’s just unworkable. Are we talking voluntary contributions? You could just hide your pass and pay the full adult fare, but what isn’t allowed is a “pensioners special fare”. Back in 2011, the top man at East Yorkshire Motor Services, Peter Shipp, asked a similar thing. A bus route facing the axe was retained, with pensioners being urged to simply hide their passes and pay instead.

But this, and the idea of some form of “means-testing” is a ham-fisted way of trying to cope with a scheme that is increasingly unfit for purpose in the back-office. The simple truth is that it isn’t funded enough to be sustainable in the long-term. When a local authority can’t afford to subsidise a bus service any more, everyone in the community loses out. Shouldn’t we be looking at rural bus services as part of “essential infrastructure”, just like telephones, power and broadband internet access?

Are grey clouds looming for other pensioner benefits? Following the recent autumn statement, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor and Damian Green (Work & Pensions Secretary) refused to give assurances on the pensions “triple lock” beyond 2020, stating that they’d have to look at the state of the economy in 4 years time. Now this may well be a bit of mischief-making on behalf of the media – who knows what might happen by 2020? – but it’s clear that funding for all sorts of things is under threat.

The statutory concessionary bus pass is a strange beast. In the Facebook discussion, I suggested that, what if the Government said that every OAP should receive a free loaf of bread, then told Hovis et al that it was going to give them less than half the retail price for every loaf? There’d be business uproar. It’d be a good thing to do, but as with everything else, there is a price to pay. And who should pay it? Pensioners tell me that they’ve worked all of their lives and paid their taxes, and “why should I begrudge them their bus pass”? I’m most certainly not begrudging them their bus pass. I agree entirely that they deserve it, and I’m sick of saying it until I’m blue in the face. But all of us – me, you, pensioners, workers – are living in ever-changing times. Now. Whatever pensioners have worked for, whatever I’m still working for – the money, we’re told, isn’t there. The NHS is “starved of funds”, my mate’s Dad tells me he might not be able to play bowls any more because the funding has gone from the local authority to maintain the bowling green. another friend’s sister has lost her job at the local library. These are all sorry tales of a lack of funding in today’s society. I’m repeatedly calling for more money to properly fund the country’s concessionary bus pass scheme, but I fear I’m being drowned out by competing demands for that last few coins at the bottom of the empty piggy-bank.

So the story of The Baroness, The Arguments and the Bus Pass doesn’t currently have a happy ending. The concessionary bus pass is a great British benefit worth fighting for. Whether it’ll still be around in 5, 10 or 20 years – along with lifeline rural transport services – is another matter entirely.

Lining up the Hymn Sheets

Partnership is the best way forward when it comes to improving the bus user’s lot. But all those involved in that partnership have to be singing from the same hymn sheet to achieve the best outcome.

So what to make of Gloucestershire County Council’s decision to scrap plans for a bus lane in Cheltenham, which was fully funded and approved?

The route linking Cheltenham and Gloucester – Stagecoach’s 94 – was already known for it’s posh “Gold” buses, and, next week, the operator upgrades these vehicles with brand new ones, taking the bus passenger experience to new heights.

But the double-whammy of smart new buses and congestion-busting priority is now considerably watered down. As mentioned on this blog before, you can have state-of-the-art kit with comfy seats, WiFi and phone charging facilities, but if they crawl in the same nose-to-tail jams, too many motorists will conclude “what’s the point?”

That’s why it’s so important to line up the hymn sheets amongst all of the partners in these schemes to ensure the singing voice is one and the same. An excellent chance to send a message to congested road users of Cheltenham and Gloucester has been wasted.

Mind The (Satisfaction) Gap!

It all depends on where you stand on the pint glass stage.

If you’re “glass half-full”, the latest West Midlands Bus Passenger Satisfaction Survey results (produced by Transport Focus) indicate a healthy level of good feeling amongst bus users in the conurbation (around 9 in 10 report that they’re happy with the service overall). On the face of it, these are compelling figures that other industries would die for.

But if you’re on the way to the bar with a half-empty glass, you might want to think about a rather alarming drop in satisfaction with journey time – down a whopping 6% in 12 months from 86% to 80%. And that reflects a feeling amongst numerous transport experts that congestion has rapidly increased in the past couple of years.

The acknowledged transport expert Professor David Begg has produced a compelling report on the impact of congestion on passengers. Some words on the West Midlands make for depressing reading. It is the 5th most congested metropolitan area in England, with traffic speeds 15% worse than the UK average – and it’s only going to get worse, says Begg. Population growth forecasts combined with increasing car dependency will result in 34% more traffic over the next 30 years. Air quality levels will be amongst the worst in the UK.

These are interesting times for the powers that be. The rapid increase in congestion is acknowledged – the more difficult scenario is what to do about it.

Sitting on the top deck of a bus in Bearwood, on the edge of Birmingham City Centre the other day, I glanced across the road from the bus station to the layby. There, I considered the extent to which the areas’ largest bus operator – National Express West Midlands – has invested in it’s kit in recent times. There were three buses. None of them were 18 months or above old, two of them looked resplendent in their crimson liveries, and a third, in Platinum grey, boasted WiFi, charging points and extra leg room. Birmingham’s buses have never looked so good. Route 126 linking Birmingham with Wolverhampton is one such route converted to “Platinum” high-spec vehicles. Yet this route is one that Professor Begg highlights as a real example of the effects of congestion. In 1987, the return journey time was 160 minutes. Today it is 200 minutes – 40 minutes slower. Back then, it required 16 vehicles to run the service on a 10 minute frequency – today 20 buses. This all results in costs that are 25% higher. Begg concludes that the West Midlands is still suffering from a policy approach that has it’s origins in the 1960s, prioritising road building and car use – and if you stand in the middle of the City Centre, you can’t fail to appreciate that. This has resulted in a level of car dependency – 65% of all journeys – which is far higher than comparable areas in German areas such as Munich, Stuttgart and Dusseldorf, which are at a 35-45% level.

This isn’t to say that the efforts of transport folk in the West Midlands aren’t appreciated. The West Midlands Bus Alliance is quietly but effectively getting on with their work. New low-carbon vehicles and smart-ticketing are making things better for the bus user.

There is though a nagging confirmation amongst friends and colleagues who don’t use the bus that they aren’t about to any time soon. If anything, the increased congestion on display merely confirms their hardened attitude to being wedded to their private box on wheels. The Nat Ex WM Twitter feed contains – on an almost daily basis now – information on lock-jammed routes, delays of over 30 minutes and no discernible reason for it, other than sheer “volume of traffic”. As I write this, in mid-November, Britain’s second City is in full-on Christmas shopping mood. The German market is about to open (for an extended period this year, right across Christmas itself), the lights are on and the predictable gridlock is in full-flow. There is the usual soft-hearted plea to “consider using public transport” into the City, but you might as well try talking to the Queen of Sheba – the sheer amount of cars and vans clogging up the City is as worse as it’s ever been.

So whilst us bus-types collectively pat ourselves on the back for another good survey score, we need to remember that there are two sides to every coin. The bus operators are doing probably all they can for their part to up the image of public transport. Measures such as emission zones in Birmingham have rid the City of poor operators with dirty buses. Quality is the name of the game now. It’s still furtive ground for operators, but the issue of congestion – and pollution from vehicles other than buses – needs to be addressed. And soon.

So the new West Midlands Combined Authority, it’s transport arm “Transport for West Midlands” and whoever gets chosen by the people next year as the Region’s first “Metro Mayor” have some serious decisions to take. For me, we have surely come to the end of tinkering around the edges. We can make public transport look attractive – the new buses and sparkly Metro are testament to that – but the time has now surely come to take those very unpalatable decisions about restricting the use of the private vehicle in the City Centre, and it’s approaches.

This most certainly won’t be easy. Remember the attempt to introduce congestion charging in Manchester six years ago? Almost 79% rejected it. Well, of course they would, wouldn’t they? Sometimes, political decisions have to have a very bitter taste, but for the right reasons. Will this newly-devolved responsibility bring real results, for the first time in my lifetime? Well, my glass is, sadly, half-empty, until I can see the proposals of the Mayoral candidates. And then, we have to see what meat is on the bones, once they are in place. Solving congestion won’t be easy, nor pretty, but it surely has to happen soon.

There is also something that eats away at the back of my mind too. The Transport Focus Bus Passenger Surveys are a great tool, and very useful. And I’m not just saying that because I used to work for them years ago, either. It is that seeming “gap” between a very, very good overall score for the West Midlands’ buses and the kind of “reality” that, whilst existing users might be quite happy with their “lot”, there is a much bigger pool that see buses and public transport as an irrelevance. Are we in that same mode that saw the “shock” Brexit result or the “shock” US Presidential election result? Can we really believe the polling? Existing bus users might say that all is more or less well, but that big dip in satisfaction on journey times says a lot, to me. If buses – albeit very sparkly, state-of-the-art buses – are stuck mostly in the same traffic as private cars, what’s the point? So those that have access to a car are probably mostly using it. It’s only geeks like me that believe in the concept of public transport that are quietly seething on the top deck looking down on endless car bumpers. Me and a load of bus users who have no choice about using the bus. And this depresses me a huge amount.

If our politicians can’t stomach a popular revolt that includes locking out people’s cars and vans, how about the start of real, meaningful actions? Like Nottingham’s workplace parking levy for starters? Oh how the good people of Nottingham wailed when this was announced – but look at the excellent tram and bus network that is there now. Of course Brum is much bigger, but hey – let’s think big!

It doesn’t need the folly of “Quality Contracts” of “franchising” – that is merely a smokescreen. It requires political leadership to state the uncomfortable – that is we can’t keep on taking the congestion, gridlock and pollution that unrestricted access brings. And then it requires massive balls to go out and do something that will eventually bring benefits for the City Centre. The sad fact is that the politicians brave enough to do this won’t see the fruits of their labours. For them, it’ll be disastrous headlines, abuse on Twitter and a swift end to their political career (although the old adage “all political careers end in failure” is probably true).

It’s great that bus satisfaction figures are high – I’m not knocking that – but the much wider picture concerns me a lot. Because unless the sparkly WiFi bus can cut through the congestion and do it’s job effectively, the hawks like Uber and the like will cut their fares even more and bring their offering into the ball-park of the bus fare – which might mean near-instant gratification for the traveller – but also means even more vehicles on the road, leading to a slow, sorry death for the mode of transport best-equipped to move large numbers of people quickly, safely and effectively. It just needs a real chance to shine, and the only way to do that is to physically restrict free, unabated access to private vehicles.

That’s the challenge – and it’s coming quicker than any of us would dare to believe. Will our leaders grasp it?