Rural Transport Services - Value for Money?

Refer to the Government’s 2016 publication “Value for Money of Tendered Bus Services”

There needs to be a much better collective understanding about the criteria used to determine the level of subsidy allocated to keep supported rural bus services running.

Hitherto, the key factor in the support to uncommercial bus routes (ie predominently rural services) has been an undefined cost metric, used as a proxy assessment of “Value”, its being inversely proportional to £subsidy per passenger mile. Such a cost metric may be an important PI, but it is a very poor measure of Value. It is a poor measure because it does not relate to the effective achievement of key stakeholders’ objectives in the delivery of rural transport services.

There needs to be a better understanding about the perceived VfM underpinning these outcomes: the commercial value - as seen by bus operators in a return on investment; the strategic value – as seen by a local authority (how far the allocation of subsidies enables delivery against the authority’s strategic transport objectives); and customer value - whether the provision of a bus services meets rural residents’ needs. These 3 measures of VfM are very different, and must not be confused or interchanged. Unfortunately, at present they are not even articulated, let alone separated in the planning of rural transport. The Government’s 2016 publication cites similar considerations, but calls them “benefits”.  This mismatch in terminology is not helpful.

Additionally, the 2016 analysis excludes key factors in the planning for rural bus services. The Executive Summary says the analysis does not capture the positive distributional impact of tendered bus services; nor [rural] individuals’ loss of wellbeing in case tendered services are withdrawn; nor “Further benefits” enabled by tendered services. These are critical considerations in defining VfM, and their conscious omission undermines the credibility of the 2016 publication.

If we are to develop a better and fairer strategy for rural transport, the Government’s view of VfM outlined in 2016 needs update, completion and clarification. The annual, hand-to-mouth decision making in pursuit of vague, pseudo-definitions of VfM needs to be radically overhauled from the top down if the decline is to be stopped.

Recently, this has become much more important to us. North-South arterial routes across rural B&NES are well-served by bus services, but East-West travel by bus has always been challenging. This was recognised in the B&NES rural transport strategies developed and published in 2017. There are 2 reasons why this long-standing challenge became an immediate problem resulting in the creation of the B&NES Rural Transport Group (BRTG):

1.     In 2018, First Bus made unexpected and severe reductions in its service along the rural East-West run of the Cam Valley to and from Bath City Centre. Residents along the route, regarding the service as a key transport solution, were surprised and angered by the change. The reduction in service resulted in several heated public meetings in rural parishes along the route, a campaign to restore the service, a demonstration at Bath central bus station and a general frustration in parish councils unable to explain to their angry parishioners the rationale behind First’s action. The reduction in service flew in the face of everything. The B&NES rural transport strategies said opportunities would be found to improve East-West travel, not reduce it. Most recently, the Council has argued that bus services would enable rural residents to leave the car, cope with the imposition of a Clean Air Zone in Bath and support the Council’s declaration of a Climate Emergency. It transpires that rural stakeholder buy-in to the 2017 transport strategies was, and is, poor to non-existent. The “Key [strategic] Actions” outlined in 2017 had not been developed into credible action plans to protect rural bus services. More widely, they simply do not articulate the intentions, aspirations or priorities of the administration that has inherited them – there is no measure of Value.

2.     Strategic planning for the delivery of bus services in B&NES is being transferred from the Council to the new West of England Combined Authority (WECA). If the extant B&NES rural transport strategies lack detail sufficient to secure stakeholders’ confidence then the significant risk is that the WECA bus strategy, though it reads well, will be even less relevant, convincing and effective. The BRTG has been assured that “the award of a new contract [for the recently reduced 179 First Bus Cam Valley service] …will not be focussed purely on financial considerations.” That is potentially good news. However, the Group has yet to be told what considerations post COVID it will be focussed on, and whether the focus will apply to all B&NES rural bus services.   

Why the contribution is important

Funding decisions made on the basis of undefined or fuzzy ideas of "Value for Money" are inherently inefficient, because they are, effectively, guesswork. In terms of the issue of subsidising bus services to sustain otherwise uncommercial routes, they are demonstrably unfair to rural residents who, disproportionately, have relied on them and have fewer alternative options open to them. 

Future rural transport services will most likely be delivered through a mix of commercial bus services, community transport schemes and car sharing/local taxi "clubs." We will need collectively to develop and understand a new way of designing and resourcing the integration of that (currently undefined) mix to ensure efficiency and fairness across the piece.  


by DavidOrme on January 07, 2021 at 09:18PM

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