BUSES: Council funding row
Image: West of England Combined Authority
A row has blown up after Conservative council leaders demanded a recruitment freeze at the West of England Combined Authority (Weca) to undo recent bus cuts.
South Gloucestershire’s ruling Tory administration has accused Labour metro mayor Dan Norris of axing bus services without consultation and say money should be spent reversing these decisions instead of creating a new Weca director role and expanding the press team.
But Mr Norris, who succeeded Conservative Tim Bowles as regional mayor at May’s local elections, said the councillors were “deliberately confusing two separate issues” and blamed the Government for slashing funding for local bus services by two-thirds.
Weca’s joint committee – comprising the West of England mayor and leaders of Bristol, North Somerset, Bath & North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire councils – is being asked at its meeting on Tuesday (September 21) to approve the creation of an environment director to oversee the regional body’s refreshed climate emergency plan.
South Gloucestershire Council’s transport chief says the new role commands an unspecified six-figure salary and that adverts have also gone out to recruit more communications and press officers at a combined cost of about £80,000.
Cabinet member for regeneration, environment and strategic infrastructure Cllr Steve Reade said Weca was spending unnecessary money on the new employees at a time when it has overseen bus cuts across the district.
The number 18 between Kingswood and Bath was scrapped and the number 5 from Downend to Bristol has stopped calling in Bromley Heath and from running in the evenings and on Sundays.
Cllr Reade said neither the public nor local authorities were consulted and the breakdown in communication about the changes resulted in passengers waiting at bus stops for services that were no longer running.
He said: “It has been a shock and a disappointment to have seen Weca, under its new mayor, approve so many cuts to our local bus services at a time when we need to be inspiring confidence in our return to public transport post-Covid, particularly to promote sustainable methods of transport that support our climate emergency goals.
“The whole fiasco has been both terribly undemocratic and disorganised, and with nothing being done to replace these services, these changes will instead just deter people from using buses.
“The mayor talks about being more visible but spending public money on more staff to fuel a self-promotion campaign is the wrong priority.
“As we can now see, Wecan funding could easily be redirected towards reinstating bus services that are lifelines to many in communities, not just in South Gloucestershire but across the whole West of England.
“We need to be prioritising buses, not wasteful bureaucracy. Local campaigns are shooting up across the region in the wake of these bus cuts and it is time the mayor stops playing the Westminster blame game.”
Mr Norris, who is on a collision course with Cllr Savage at Tuesday’s meeting over a motion the mayor is tabling to formally oppose Bristol Airport’s expansion – reversing Weca’s position – said the climate emergency was the biggest crisis facing humanity.
“We have to up our game – so serious action is needed. I’m therefore bringing forward a fully costed action plan for the West of England,” he said.
“It’s also why I’m calling on council leaders to support my motion to oppose the expansion of Bristol Airport.
“We need strong moral leadership. So instead of deliberately confusing two separate issues, I’d kindly ask Conservative South Gloucestershire councillors to focus on the issues that matter to local people.
“I’d ask South Gloucestershire Tories to persuade their council leader to show moral leadership and support these important steps towards a greener future.
“The people of South Gloucestershire will be watching very closely what they do, along with communities right across the West of England.
“The Government’s sudden two-thirds cut in funding support for local bus services is ill-thought out and is hurting West of England communities.
“To their credit, South Gloucestershire Tory MPs agree, which is why they have joined local Lib Dem and Labour MPs in supporting my calls for an urgent rethink.”
Last week Mr Norris sent a letter to Baroness Vere, the government minister in charge of buses, calling for more cash for the services.
It said a two-thirds reduction in Whitehall funding for the region’s routes on August 31 led to the cuts and more were under threat.
The joint letter was signed by Mr Norris, Kingswood Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, Filton & Bradley Stoke Tory MP Jack Lopresti, LIb Dem Bath MP Wera Hobhouse and Bristol Labour MPs Thangam Debbonaire, Darren Jones, Kerry McCarthy and Karin Smyth.
A petition to save the Number 18 bus is here: https://www.chrisskidmore.com/campaigns/save18bus
And the number 5 here: https://www.change.org/p/west-of-england-combined-authority-and-metro-mayor-restore-the-no-5-bus-service-to-bromley-heath-and-provide-a-dedicated-metrobus-stop
Words: Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter
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