June 18, 2012

Vain Greens slash services?

Category: Brighton & Hove City Council,Parking & Transport – Rob Shepherd – 7:38 pm

If you were to read some political writings in Brighton & Hove this past week you could be forgiven for concluding that the city’s school and hospital buses are being ripped from the city in a frenzy of route deforestation, with the Green administration using the proceeds to pimp nothing but its pride.

According to Twitter, the Greens will ‘AXE school bus services to invest 250k in Green vanity projects’ and we are also ‘slashing services to the Hospital’. Meanwhile, letters in the local press and a local blog say our bussing decisions are ‘absurd’, ‘absolutely incredible’, ‘ludicrous’ and ‘will dramatically affect the lives of residents across the city’.

So although we’ve already written about reductions to subsidised bus services, we thought we’d add some more information, just to calm this panic-inducing impression that school and hospital bus services are generally about to be destroyed. They aren’t.

First of all, let’s be clear about how ‘dramatically’ people’s lives are being affected.

Only 2% of the bus network is subsidised and most subsidies are remaining. Indeed, compared to other councils, we have one of the best records in the country for saving subsidised bus services. 99.7% of bus journeys in the city are unaffected by the reduction in bus subsidies, almost all school travel is unaffected and virtually all bus routes past the hospital will remain intact.

So let’s examine what damage the Greens are charged with doing, and what’s really happening behind the headlines.

They say we’ll ‘AXE school bus services’

In fact, the only school bus services where subsidies are being removed are the 96 and the 74. The route of the 74 is duplicated by the 75, meaning the ‘AXE school bus services’ claim is actually focused only on the decision to stop subsidising the 96. Let’s look at our thinking behind this.

Why ‘axe’ the 96?

It isn’t an axing. The Greens care deeply about the pupils who use the 96 bus (and their parents) but we’re not convinced the current bus arrangement is the best one. Our goal is to find the best way of doing things and not simply, blindly, to carry on with the current approach if it is no longer sensible.

What’s the current arrangement?

The 96 runs twice a day, on school days, taking pupils who live mainly in Westdene to and from the schools at Blatchington Mill and Hove Park. It starts in Patcham and goes through Westdene to Hove Park Lower School, arriving there at 8.15am. Then in the afternoon it leaves Hove Park Lower School at 3.10pm to return. Pupils who have after-school activities can’t use it.

The reason Westdene pupils go to Hove schools is historical: Westdene used to be in these schools’ catchment areas. However, it isn’t any more, so there are a few dozen pupils left who use the 96 while they work their way through school but, over the next four years, the number is expected to decline each year, as Westdene catchment-area pupils graduate.

What’s the new arrangement?

Last week, councillors had to vote on which buses to continue subsidising, not just for this coming year but for the next four years. There was no one-year option (read on to see why).

The 96 was among services put out to a new, four year tender and the council’s subsidy of it had to be justified not just for the next year but for four years. During those four years, the subsidy would remain the same even if the pupil numbers fall noticeably.

So it was decided that the 96 would no longer be subsidised, effective from the school year starting this September. We recognise that September is not far away but the system of bus tendering did not allow the council to give more warning and did not allow the administration to put the decision off for a year.

Just how much is this subsidy, anyway?

Only one company chose to tender. We’re not allowed to know the value of the tender as it’s commercially confidential but we do know that last year the cost was £38,000 and it’s generally assumed that prices have risen by at least 20% since then.

The number of pupils using the service is also not known exactly (the bus company does not make its precise passenger numbers public and, anyway, the number varies from day to day) but questioning of users and a regular driver on the route, by Westdene’s local councillor, Sue Shanks, together with a survey carried out by pupils on the route and presented very eloquently to a council meeting this week, put the figure at around 52 pupils who said they needed the bus, though they wouldn’t all travel on it each time.

This puts the annual cost at approximately £1,000 per pupil passenger. In addition, parents pay for bus passes at £240 a year, which means the total cost of the 96 – per pupil passenger on any given day – is estimated at more than £7/day. Add four pupils together and it would arguably be cheaper to hire a taxi! Let’s be clear: there are no plans to replace the 96 with taxis(!), yet we’re talking about similar costs here.

And that price per pupil is expected to rise sharply every year for the next four years.

That’s fine but what about the affected pupils and their parents?

The decision on the subsidy was not a decision to leave those few dozen children high and dry, however others may try to paint it. The decision was simply not to award the subsidy, so that alternatives could be looked at.

As long ago as January, the Green administration made it clear that it would work with parents, pupils, schools and providers to find alternatives. Then, just before the vote last week, we issued a statement reiterating that, which was quoted the next day in the Argus, and in a weekend blog post, Council leader Jason Kitcat confirmed it once again, saying:
Not all school transport has to be by a large bus with a route number associated. Only those big spending routes need to go through the procurement we discussed at committee this week. There are other options for transport, which we will keep discussing with parents, children, schools and providers.”

The 96 had to go through a big tendering process which is now out of the way. Alternatives don’t face the same hurdles and the matter is not over.

And, incidentally, the fact that the subsidy has been withdrawn from the 96 does not actually mean the bus has to go. The bus company is entitled to keep running it and may choose to do so.

But let us state for the record, now, that this week’s decision is not about depriving the children of Westdene and nearby: it’s about working together to find the best way of doing things.


They say we’re ‘slashing services to the hospital’

Actually, this claim is about one bus route, the 52, which is being reduced but not removed – or ‘slashed’. It’s an hourly service which doesn’t run in the evenings or on Sundays but is the only service that directly connects the middle of Ovingdean (without changing buses) with the hospital.

The change does not remove the 52 altogether or prevent people from Ovingdean getting to and from the hospital but, because the route is shortened, it does ask them, for the first time, to change buses en route. Changing buses is quite common for many bus users across the city but has so far not been asked of 52 users. The suggestion is to change at the Marina and take the frequent No 7, though there are other alternatives.

Changing buses isn’t perfect but neither can any council subsidise a bus network to the extent that no-one ever has to change buses. Our sympathies go particularly to the very small number of Ovingdean residents who may find it more difficult than most of us to change buses.

People who wish to reach the hospital from other parts of the city are not adversely affected, nor are Ovingdean residents who can walk to the coast road (where there’s a much more frequent service).


They say the Greens’ decisions ‘are ludicrous’

We truly wish we didn’t have to reduce the subsidy to the 52, the 96 or, indeed, any bus services but, as we’ve said elsewhere, the council faces harsh cuts from an austerity-obsessed Downing Street, amplified by direct government cuts to the bus companies themselves and rising diesel prices. The council has less to spend and bus services cost more than before.

Unlike many other councils, Brighton & Hove is still putting about £1m a year into bus subsidies and only saving about £230,000. Contrast this with, for example, Cambridge, which is cutting all subsidies. Such a comparison may not help the people of Brighton & Hove, we realise, but it does show the Green commitment to bus subsidies in the face of a conservative-led government that would rather have none at all.

And we’re quite surprised that opposition politicians have taken until now to make a fuss about the subsidy reduction. They all agreed to it, and every single opposition councillor voted in favour of it, back in February!

We cannot dodge all central government cuts but we are doing all we can to minimise or neutralise their effects on people who need our services.

But have the right buses been chosen?

No decisions were made lightly. For the first time ever, each subsidised service was scored to determine which subsidy reductions would have the least impact: this was a process agreed in advance by all the city’s political parties and is another reason we’re surprised that opposition councillors are now objecting to the decisions. An equalities assessment was also carried out to ensure no one group of people would be more adversely affected than another.

Much as those affected may wish different services had been chosen, the choices were the fairest available.


They say this is ‘to invest £250k in Green vanity projects’

Actually, one project is being attacked by this claim: One Planet Living, which does indeed have a budget of £250,000.

Why not use the money for buses instead?

The One Planet Living budget is for one year but the bus contracts were for four years so, in future years, the money would have to be found from somewhere else, at a time of ever-shrinking council budgets.

Why not ask for one year bus contracts and put the problem off for a year?

This would have had two consequences.

Firstly, if asked to tender for a year at a time, instead of four, the bus companies would have been justified in asking for a great deal more money per year, or even not bidding at all for more ‘difficult’ services. This means the council’s £1m or so of subsidy wouldn’t have gone nearly as far and there would have still been subsidy reductions. In fact, the city could quite possibly have ended up with services affected to a very similar extent as now, plus the risk of some services simply having no provider at all.

Secondly, four year contracts mean that subsidies are effectively now ring-fenced for four years. Without that protection, and faced with rising tender prices and ever-deeper government cuts, future years could have looked quite grim. The short-term gain would have created much worse long-term loss.

At the moment, opposition councillors are trying to overturn the bus subsidy decision and put this money into buses. But their plans do not explain how they would pay for the much higher prices on a one year contract or find the money in future years for a four year contract. For this reason, we think they know that their motion will not get through and is only being tabled to make political capital, so that they can claim that they ‘tried’.

But ‘One Planet Living’? A Green vanity project? To detect leaks?

One Planet Living is not a project ‘to detect leaks’, as has been blogged, any more than double-glazing is a project to detect draughts, though that may be a fringe benefit.

Nor was there ever an ‘either/or’ choice between One Planet Living and bus subsidies. This city needs subsidised buses but it also needs One Planet Living.

As Greens, we’re proud to say that One Planet Living is an environmentally conscious project for the whole city. It’s the sort of thing the city electorate expected of us when they voted in the UK’s first Green Council.

But it also makes a great deal of financial sense. Far from being about ‘vanity’, it’s one of those projects, like the Green Deal, that’s a win-win for the environment and the city’s purse.

We’ll blog properly another time about it but for now let’s say it’s an investment in improvements to infrastructure that will yield benefits financially and environmentally. A practical example is water end energy metering which will help the council to run its buildings far more efficiently. It needs some up-front expense but it will soon give financial rewards when efficiencies kick in and costs go down. And trials have shown that that can start happening pretty quickly.

If we want to find something ludicrous, it is that an organisation the size of Brighton & Hove City Council has not already had the investment to manage its buildings and other resources more conscientiously. This was available to politicians throughout the ‘boom’ years.

Some may say that the years of austerity are not the right time to begin this but, in fact, now is exactly the right time. As government cuts to local councils bite deeper and deeper, we will need smart thinking like this to keep the council going in a way the city wants.

And at the same time, we’ll be massively helping to improve the city’s impact on the environment. One Planet Living includes a One Planet Council initiative but covers the whole city economy. One Planet Living isn’t well-known here yet, as it’s new, but it will gradually become a household phrase: something for the whole city to embrace.

If everyone in the world lived like we do at the moment in Brighton & Hove, we would need three planets to sustain us. But we live on one. There is no Planet B.