There was a comprehensive debate on the state of bus services in Wales at the Plenary on Wednesday (Oct 4) at the Senedd.
Welsh Conservative MS Natasha Asghar talked about the need for certainty of future funding, and she quoted industry leaders who talk about a cliff edge. The MS also spoke about the decision to row back on HS2 and some of the other schemes that have been promised.
Alun Davies talked about the effect that bus cuts have on people in his area and how London has been saved from the privatisation of the bus network.
Delyth Jewell MS suggested that there is a stigma sometimes about people using buses in Wales that is not there in London.
Some argued that successive Westminster Governments have failed Wales when it comes to electrification
Cefin Campbell MS highlighted the deficiencies in public transport in rural communities and the impact that has on poverty. He also mentioned the cuts to Bwcabus, and the serious social impact that those cuts have.
Altaf Hussain MS said that people often have no alternative to the bus, that elderly people are essentially trapped in their homes. He said that, once a route has ended, it’s almost impossible to get it back. The bus service was described as a lifeline to some, for people who can’t drive and for younger people who cannot afford a car. There was also the impact on people with disabilities. The impact on school pupils was also mentioned.
Huw Iranca Davies was clear in saying that he believed that the bus industry in Wales was broken. The MS suggested that the problems stemmed back to the privatisation of the service in the 1980s.
It was said that buses should be central to the needs of communities and should be answerable to the needs of communities, not corporations.
Deputy Minister for Climate Change Lee Waters MS thanked the contributors and said that it was clear from the debate that people care about buses. He said that the bus service currently does not meet Welsh Government’s ambitions for what a bus service should look like.
The Deputy Minister said that Welsh Government are currently spending £139 million this year on supporting bus services. He said: “£46 million of that is the special bus transition fund. On top of that, school budgets contribute around 25 per cent of all of their funding to funding school transport, so we are spending a considerable amount of public funding on supporting the bus industry.”
The Deputy Minister suggested that COVID pushed over a broken privatised system, and that austerity was restraining Welsh Government’s ability to respond to the crisis that had created.
He said: “That, I think, in a nutshell, is the problem that we have.”
The Deputy Minister continued: “The problem we have fundamentally is that we have a private system where its commercial model has fallen apart because of COVID, and passenger numbers around the world have not returned to where they were. The revenue simply isn’t there for most bus services to run on their own terms, therefore they can only run with Government support.”
Bwcabus and rural communities were mentioned and the Deputy Minister said that he was ‘doing a piece of work at the moment’ looking around Europe on the models there are for public transport in rural areas.
He concluded by saying: “We are in a very tight financial spot. We are committed to trying to safeguard as many bus services as we can, recognising the cost of running those bus services is going up and that eats into the amount of funding that is available, and we face some real short-term tough choices. Our challenge is to get from where we are into franchising, because I think franchising allows us to design an intelligent, integrated network where bus and train can come together, where school services can link in with other services and communities’ needs can be planned in and services can be cross-subsidised between profit-making and loss-making services. I think we all agree that is the right place to get to. We are working very hard on designing that legislation and the system alongside it, and we will be introducing legislation next year. I think we all share an aspiration for the system to be better and an acknowledgement of how important it is, and, if Members have practical solutions, I’m all ears.”