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ANNA BAILEY: Mayor Johnson ‘not up to the job’

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Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA) is the Transport Authority for our county and is run by the Mayor, Dr Nik Johnson – the mayor is responsible for bus services.

Please write to Mayor Dr Nik Johnson to tell him what your bus service means to you: Nik.Johnson@cambridgeshirepeterborough-ca.gov.uk

How do bus services work?

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Soham opens new Station after 56 years the last one closed. Soham, Ely Monday 13 December 2021. Picture by Terry Harris.

Most bus services in Cambridgeshire are run on a ‘commercial’ basis – in other words, they are run by private operators with no public subsidy. 

A small number of services receive a subsidy from CPCA to make them financially viable to run – these tend to be services in rural areas where the lower population means less fare income.

The CPCA is also responsible for paying for free bus passes. 

Frustratingly, whilst bus passes are a statutory requirement (the CPCA must pay for them by law), subsidising non-commercial routes is not.

Last time I looked, CPCA was spending around £6/7m on bus passes and only around £1.5m on subsidising routes. 

The effect of this is such that, the more people that use their bus pass in areas like central Cambridge where there are frequent, convenient services, the greater the spend on the bus pass budget and the less money there is for subsidising non-commercial routes.

This results in cuts to subsidised bus services, which are always the rural routes, meaning people in rural areas have no bus on which to use their bus pass!

Currently, the CPCA cannot commission bus services that ‘compete’ with the commercial operators, so it is restricted in what services it can provide.

However, Combined Authorities are legally empowered to ask the Government for the power to franchise bus services, like in London.

This would allow CPCA to control the bus service network, meaning it could take decisions on how to run services for the good of the county (rather than for pure commercial interest), so more profitable services could subsidise less financially viable routes.

What’s Going on with Bus Services in Cambridgeshire?

Post pandemic, increasing fuel and driver costs alongside general inflation and reduced patronage levels are plunging services across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough into financial difficulty.

This has resulted in Stagecoach announcing they are axing 18 services across the county, including the 11/X11, the 12, and the 39 in East Cambs. 

Another 22 Stagecoach services of concern have been placed on an ‘amber’ list, some of which will have their routes or pick up/drop off points changed and could be at risk in the future. 

Alongside this, a number of services that are commissioned and subsidised by the CPCA are coming up for retender and contract prices are expected to rise significantly.

As it stands, the mayor has not made any new money available from his revenue budget to support services, and I am calling on him to do so.

We do not yet know the outlook for routes that are run by other commercial operators or the rest of the subsidised routes.

It is critical that the network is considered as a whole – it would be wrong to make short term decisions on the current routes that are in crisis without considering what else is about to happen to the network.

Alongside these devastating cuts to bus services, the Lib Dem controlled Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Lib Dem run County Council now want to add to the transport misery of our county by forcing Congestion Charging  on the people of Cambridgeshire that need to drive into Cambridge. 

Who is to ‘blame’?

The mayor is quick to blame others for the failing bus network across the county, blaming Stagecoach for axing services and central Government for ending short term Covid support funding – Government has since confirmed continued financial support with one more round of funding.   

Am I angry with Stagecoach? Yes!

They are taking central Government money meant for keeping services going whilst axing services, and they are looking at routes in isolation, rather than the network.

They are withdrawing services that are operating at close to pre Covid levels; the Ely-Cambridge-Newmarket Number 12 is operating at 92% and the Bury St Edmunds-Newmarket-Cambridge Number 11/X11 at 97%. 

The truth is though, that the mayor knew this was coming and has failed the people of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

The mayor knew that short term central Government Covid funding was ending, he knew that driver and fuel costs were rising, he knew that patronage levels were down.

The first signs of distress in the bus network were back in April and May of this year, when the Wisbech 68 and the Ely Zipper both got into financial difficulty.

In the case of the Ely Zipper, when the mayor failed to take action East Cambs District Council stepped in short term  to provide modest support to the service until it could be retendered later this year.

Unfortunately, the mayor has also failed to move on with the discussion about franchising that was well under way under the previous mayor. 

What has gone wrong at the CPCA?

Unfortunately, the mayor has cancelled the Cambridge Autonomous Metro (CAM), an ambitious but deliverable project which would have provided a world class attractive alternative to the car, and the benefits of which would have spread into East Cambs and across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

He has done this without putting a viable alternative in its place.

Unfortunately, the mayor has failed to win any funding from either the Government’s £7bn public transport overhaul for bus service improvements or the £5.7bn combined authority sustainable transport funding (CPCA is the only Combined Authority area in the country not to have been awarded funds).

Look below at the hundreds of millions that the other mayors were awarded for their Combined Authorities.

Sustainable Transport Settlements for Mayoral Combined Authorities:

Greater Manchester: £1,070 million

Liverpool City Region: £710 million

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South Yorkshire: £570 million

Tees Valley: £310 million

West of England: £540 million

West Midlands: £1,050 million

West Yorkshire: £830 million 

And here is the list of the millions that were awarded for other areas’ Bus Service Improvement Plans:

Bus Service Improvement Plan allocations: 

  • Blackburn with Darwen and Lancashire (joint submission): £34.2m 
  • Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole: £8.9m 
  • Brighton and Hove: £27.9m 
  • Central Bedfordshire: £3.7m 
  • City of York: £17.4m 
  • Cornwall: £13.3m 
  • Derby City: £7.0m 
  • Derbyshire: £47.0m 
  • Devon: £14.1m 
  • East Sussex: £41.4m 
  • Greater Manchester: £94.8m 
  • Hertfordshire: £29.7m 
  • Kent: £35.1m 
  • Liverpool City Region: £12.3m 
  • Luton: £19.1m 
  • Norfolk: £49.6m 
  • North East and North of Tyne: £163.5m 
  • North East Lincolnshire: £4.7m 
  • Nottingham City: £11.4m 
  • Nottinghamshire: £18.7m 
  • Oxfordshire: £12.7m 
  • Portsmouth: £48.3m 
  • Reading: £26.3m 
  • Stoke-on-Trent: £31.7m 
  • Warrington: £16.2m 
  • West Berkshire: £2.6m 
  • West Midlands: £87.9m 
  • West of England and North Somerset: £105.5m 
  • West Sussex: £17.4m 
  • West Yorkshire: £70m

Government is not convinced that the mayor is putting forward credible and viable transport proposals. 

To add to this though, Government is currently withholding ongoing funding from CPCA because of concerns over the conduct of ‘key individuals in the mayor’s office’ and the governance of the authority cited in a letter from its external auditor Ernst and Young.

The truth is that the CPCA is dysfunctional and distracted with questions over the conduct of the mayor’s office, employment claims, governance issues and a staff exodus.

Given the serious issues at the authority it is hardly surprising that Government is not currently awarding funds to Cambridgeshire and Peterborough under a mayor that clearly is not up to the job.

The Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Dr Nik Johnson, is failing.

He is failing to deal with the current bus crisis, he is failing to articulate a vision for transport for the county, he is failing to plan and deliver transport solutions, he is failing to provide leadership.

What is being done?

Officers at the CPCA are devising a framework to help support decisions on which bus services to try to keep going.

Conservative board members on the CPCA, including myself, have insisted that this cannot simply be a case of choosing to save those services that have the lowest cost per passenger journey.

Whilst this might seem the best value for the public purse it will inevitably result in the loss of more rural services first, with all the consequences of that.

The framework must be more nuanced than that.

The mayor has said he wants to improve rural bus services to ‘level up,’ so he cannot, with any credibility, now agree for them to be cut. 

In my view, it is also critical that we look outward and forward, to consider the network as a whole and those services under threat in the future

CPCA officers have identified funds of around £1.5m to add to those it already spends to try to save some of the services that are being cut, but it is not enough and if nothing more is done, we will lose services across the county.

What else could be done?

Money – this is a political choice.  The mayor controls the budget of the CPCA.

The mayor could consider freeing up additional revenue funding beyond that being suggested by officers to deliver his promises on bus services. 

Millions are sitting unallocated or unspent following a woefully inadequate budget setting process in January this year.

Not least, I have long been calling for the CPCA to stop spending the £0.5m per year on its housing team which no longer has anything to do!

The mayor should reverse the decision taken by the CPCA Board in July to “maintain a housing expertise and skills presence…to respond to future housing initiatives…” (I did not vote for this), and immediately free up the £0.5m to spend on buses. 

There are other opportunities to reallocate revenue funding into bus services if the mayor chooses to do so.

Whether this would be enough and whether it is sustainable long term remains to be seen – we do not yet even understand the size of the whole problem.

Franchising – the CPCA should immediately, rapidly, and very publicly ramp up franchising discussions. 

Whilst this is a lengthy process, if this is the firm direction of travel, operators will need to ‘come to the table’ in their longer-term interests.

Bus Passes – the CPCA should seek support from other Combined Authority areas and lobby Government for delegated freedoms to make local decisions about whether and how to provide free or subsidised bus passes.

This would enable CPCA to provide a better balance between supporting a decent bus network with supporting those that most need it with subsidised fares. 

Articulate a Vision – the mayor needs to articulate his vision for the future of transport across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

Given the current and future issues with the bus network the early headlines of the emerging Local Transport Plan (which include reducing car usage by 15%) are losing any credibility they may have had and the unpopular plans of the Greater Cambridge Partnership for Congestion Charging and Busways through greenbelt are adding to the angst and uncertainty. 

The mayor needs to step up and state what he is going to do about the current crisis in our bus network.

But beyond that, he needs to set out his vision for transport in our county, he needs to speak up and inspire, we need to hear from him, he needs to lead.

EDITOR’S FOOTNOTE: Author, Cllr Anna Bailey, is leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council. She is also a member of the Combined Authority Board.

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