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SOMERSET’S BUSES: Much better service promised by council

SOMERSET’S BUSES: Much better service promised by council

Image: LDRS

Somerset bus users have been promised “a much better service” from April 2022 as the county council bids for a share of government funding to transform the county’s public transport.

The government recently launched its national bus strategy (dubbed ‘Bus Back Better’), providing £3bn to local authorities to prevent better, more integrated bus services for their residents.

To bid for a share of this funding, Somerset County Council is forming new “enhanced partnerships” with private sector operators and other groups, with the funding being available to spend from April 2022.

However, it is not clear at this stage whether any new routes will be created or which parts of the county will see the most improvement.

The national strategy seeks a widespread improvement to bus services across the UK following the coronavirus pandemic – including faster, more frequent and more reliable vehicles, cheaper tickets, better integration with other transport (such as rail and air) and making services easier to understand.

The issue was debated at a meeting of the council’s cabinet in Taunton on Monday (June 21).

Councillor John Woodman, cabinet member for highways and transport, promised that the funding would lead to improved services – but said it was too soon to be specific about whether the funding could or would be spent.

He said: “There are lots of legal hoops to go through – it’s about developing an enhanced partnership with the bus operators so we can tap into government funding and provide a much better bus service for Somerset residents.”

Bus services in Somerset currently receive support from two different grants – the bus services operators grant, and the covid bus services support grant.

Mike O’Dowd-Jones, the council’s strategic manager for commissioning in highways and transport, said: “Existing grants that the bus operators received will be withdrawn if we are not in a formal partnership by a certain time. So there is a big incentive to do this.”

“We have had a very positive response from the bus industry so far – most of the operators have written back and said they are very happy to be involved in the partnership with us.”

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, announced in late-March that he would be bringing the city’s bus services back under local control through a new franchising arrangement, allowing local leaders to decide routes, the frequency of services and ticket prices.

Mr O’Dowd-Jones said the franchising system was not being considered in Somerset at present due to the large amount of risk involved.

He said: “There are risks with going into franchising because it can stifle competition and increase the risk to the council.”

The council will publish its plan of how its enhanced partnership with bus operators would work by October, with the partnership being confirmed by late-March 2022.

Any funding which it receives from the government’s £3bn put would then be spent in the following financial year (i.e. from April 2022 onwards).

Words: Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter


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