Bus services in Kent are about to be cut. There are two types of cuts: the first is a reduction in the number of services subsidised by Kent County Council (KCC), and the second is the axing of some loss-making services by the commercial companies that run bus services in Kent. Some 500 bus services in the county, run by 40 different operators, are commercially viable and do not need any subsidy. That is 90 percent of all bus services
The pandemic reduced the number of bus journeys in the county from around 53 million per year to 20 million. Although passengers are increasing again, bus companies are trying to catch up on losses and are aware that some passengers are still fearful of bus travel.
Consultation on the proposed cuts
Information about the proposed cuts by KCC is available in its consultation document. KCC spends some £35m per year on the bus network, with 127 contracts. Looking for savings of £3m, it proposes cutting 48 of these contracts, which is 37 percent of the total. The public consultation closes on 22 April. Those affected by these cuts can fill in a questionnaire online. There is no possibility of reversing the total cut, as KCC budget has already been fixed. What the authority (the county councillors and KCC staff) must be looking for is how to adjust or finally decide which services to cut within that total.
The services to be axed include the Kent Karrier services which provides a dial-at-need service for the sick and elderly from rural villages. If these cuts go ahead, one can only hope that these areas are covered by the volunteer drivers like Linda Christie. Other services to be dropped include some from Canterbury, Maidstone or Tunbridge Wells to surrounding villages.
The Benenden bus
My childhood from the age of eight was in Benenden, so I have great empathy with villagers who may feel cut off. To my recollection, there was one bus per day in each direction that stopped in Benenden: the 97, which ran from Ashford to Tunbridge Wells. As I got to teenage, buses became a source of travel to the beyond – to the Cranbrook cinema, and to Tunbridge Wells and the bigger shops.
The first time I was allowed to travel on it on my own, to visit Granny in Tunbridge Wells, was a huge step towards adult independence. I was delighted that, as it happened, the bus was almost serenaded by the Cranbrook town band that boarded on the way to some function.
Council expenditure and statutory services
There are statutory services, which KCC may not cut:
- £16bn per year paying for pensioner journeys
- £2m for season tickets for school children
- £10m Travel Saver schemes for students
- £500k for the disabled
- £180k for community transport subsidies
They also need to spend some £100k on infrastructure (bus stops and signage) and £430k on capital investment.
The cuts of £3m are coming from the discretionary spending, which is £6.1m.
KCC expenditure utilises 73 percent of the local council tax. Transport services altogether are 5 percent of KCC’s £1.8bn total budget. So the proposed cut of £3m is 3.3 percent of the council’s total transport budget of 90. Nifty work on the calculator reveals that this would amount to some 37.66p per month for an average ratepayer. Is it fair to axe so many services for less than the price of a cup of coffee per month?
One problem is that one can do this sort of calculation on many other needy items in the public budget. For example, adult social care is the largest share of the KCC budget at 35 percent. On the basis that each elderly resident in care costs a minimum £2 816 per month = £33 792 per year, an extra ten people in care would only cost an extra 3p per ratepayer per month. It may seem like a lot more could be funded from the council tax, but the ratepayers in Kent are extremely resistant to paying more, which is why they continue to vote for the low-tax party, regardless of the cuts to services that ensue.
Is privatisation the answer?
One rationale for the privatisation of services like the buses in 1985 was to let the private companies (shareholders) undertake the investment and the risks. If the public fiscus has to carry this, then this item in the budget is competing against other items such as social care to a much larger amount and with the greater risk that swings in the economy take larger bites out of what is available for public spending.
Democratic consultation on competing costs does not always do well, as people are bamboozled by big numbers and resistant to any talk of increased costs that may fall on them to pay, as the ongoing debate about how to fund social care shows.
When people are furious that a commercial bus company, like Stagecoach, has cut an essential service that was loss-making, they lobby the local politicians. At the end of April, Stagecoach was proposing to cut the G service, which links the suburbs of Willesborough and of Godinton and Repton to the Town Centre. Ashford councillors then successfully lobbied KCC to extend the subsidy to this service for another year, on the grounds that this bus is essential to retain footfall in the ailing town centre.
There are arguments that bus franchising, as in Transport for London, would be a better way of ensuring that there are bus operators on all essential routes. Under such a system, the local authority maps out the routes with service frequency. The private companies (or another entity such as a community or bus-users co-op) would bid for a franchise on those routes. This gives the public authority greater control, but it might still be difficult to get franchisees for the less- frequented routes. Franchises so far are successful in urban areas.
An over-riding problem is that most voters are much more concerned about using the roads as car-drivers than as users of buses. ‘Fix the potholes’ tends get a more positive response in local canvassing than ‘give us more rural buses’. Climate change will be fixed, most people assume, by more electric cars. But the public has yet to realise that in order to reach carbon-reduction targets in time, a total change in how we get about will be necessary. This should mean much greater investment in communal means of travel: rail, bus and tram.
But people do not trust the frequency of buses. Even with all the advantages of electronic notification, there are too many unexplained cancellations. One waits, standing, at a windswept bus stop in winter for an advertised bus that does not appear. A few days later, after telephonic enquiry, the explanation is ‘driver sickness’ or ‘bus breakdown’. Indeed our old diesel buses here in Ashford are reputedly passed on from Guildford, and they will finish their life passed on to Sittingbourne, so goes the bus stop legend. Driver shortage is one of the reasons Stagecoach is giving for their current round of cuts. Are the drivers deserting for better-paid HGV driving?
Improvements are on the way
However, improvements are on the way with two rapid bus transport experiments in Kent called ‘Fastrack’, using Enviro buses. The one near Ebbsfleet and the Dartford Tunnel began in 2006. Services now are:
“On 23 August 2021 the 24-hour route AZ was added to the network serving the new Amazon LCY3 distribution centre in Dartford. The route runs between Dartford and Gravesend up to every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. The route is operated by Go-Coach using Alexander Dennis Enviro400 vehicles. This service will only run until April 2022, at which point Kent County Council will adopt both routes A and AZ as part of its own network, alongside route B.”
A similar Fastrack service is about to start construction in 2022 connecting Dover and Whitfield. Meanwhile in Guildford they are already enjoying a fleet of nine electric buses. So the bus stop gossip, while coughing in the diesel fumes of the old Stagecoach, is that eventually these electric buses will come to Kent!