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Clearing up bus cuts confusion

There’s still confusion and concern among people about risks to bus services from funding changes. This week I offered to stand by with a safety net for the affected services. But what does this actually mean?

Well, before launching into the detail, I should mention that very few bus services in our city are operated with public funding. The vast majority of services are operated at the commercial risk of the operator. This is a testament to the city’s successful partnership between the bus companies and successive councils – together taking bus use per head of population to the highest in the country outside London.

So – what are the funding issues that some of our bus services currently face? They fall into two categories. The first applies this spring and the second in December, and each arises from a different cause.

In April, DfT funding for the daytime service 38 runs out. Over the last few years, the existing pattern of services in Meadowview – and the 37 services it is operationally linked with – has only been made possible by the DfT funding. Now that this money is about to run out, council officers are trying to broker the best possible solution for users of these services. Other operators are also interested in operating services on these routes as well as ourselves. It is still too early to say what the final result will be in terms of timetable, operators, and the precise route of the services, but this will be concluded very shortly. Whatever the outcome there will still be services for people in these areas, although it cannot be guaranteed that it will be exactly the same service as now.

In December, the Brighton & Hove operated evening and Sunday services on routes 21/21A and 38A, as well as the peak hour 84, will have some or all of their council funding withdrawn. (The daytime 21 and 21A are not affected.) This funding is paid to operators for what are called “secured services” or “tendered services” because they are operated after competitive tenders for the routes are submitted to the council by different operators. Secured services come about through the council exercising its powers to provide bus services where they are considered essential but are not provided by operators at the operators’ commercial risk. Of course, the council can only exercise those powers if it continues to have sufficient funds to do so.

(By the way, there are many cities in the UK that are much more heavily dependent upon secured services, and their bus networks may be at far greater risk as such funding becomes ever more squeezed.)

As with other local authorities, our city council needs to make economies in its budget – but the extent and focus of these economies are for politicians to comment and make decisions on, not me. The city council’s current budget proposals include economising on the “secured” bus services mentioned above: these are only the evening and Sunday 21/21A and 38A, and the peak hour 84 services, and no other routes are affected.

The extent of the council’s economies in secured bus services cannot be confirmed until after the elections, so it is too early for us to be able to say in detail what the final outcome will be in respect of each of these at-risk bus services; although we can confirm that we will continue to operate service 84 journeys as they are now.

We will continue working closely with council officers to ensure that a suitable service continues to be provided where “secured” services are lost, and we will publish the solutions that are reached as soon as we can.

Do get in touch with me to discuss in more detail if you would find it helpful.

Gaining momentum for accessible buses

Making buses accessible for all is something we are working hard on – and so we should. The industry has found it challenging at times. There are genuine obstacles to overcome but as the law would say, it’s about being ‘reasonable’. Defining ‘reasonable’ is another challenge but if you start from a position of basic respect for people as individuals, you can’t go too far wrong. Customers will judge you by your actions as to how reasonable you are – whether you are genuinely working to improve accessibility and whether you take it seriously.

A great pleasure for me in my first two years here at B&H has been to see the way our staff show such care for people and enthusiasm to make a difference. This has made it so much easier to get real momentum going on our accessibility provisions.

This week, the South East regional team from Guide Dogs visited to explore how we can help driver trainers impart vital information and understanding to our trainee bus drivers with regard to blind and partially sighted passengers. We had a fantastic taste of this last October when Mayor Councillor Brian Fitch and Mayoress Norah Fitch joined us at a “Guide Dogs Challenge” event at our Lewes Road depot.

We want more staff to gain a real insight into what it feels like to travel by bus with no or limited vision and the challenges to be faced. I participated in that Guide Dogs Challenge – carrying out some basic tasks whilst being blindfolded was certainly tough and this was in the comfort of a bus depot with a person guiding me, not out in the hubbub of our busy bustling city!

To enable our trainers to pass on the learning as effectively as possible to over 1000 drivers we plan to take our trainers far out of their comfort zone. With limited vision they will be tasked with traveling by service bus, waiting at bus stops and moving through the streets to achieve their Level 3 Guide Dogs Training. We also have a lot of staff wanting to volunteer to participate in workshops at all our depots, so we will build a cohort of champions to help with the learning. Of course we cannot truly replicate the conditions faced by a blind or partially sighted person day after day, but this will move us further in the right direction.

This week also sees the arrival of our hearing loop to help communications between our drivers and customers through the cab screen. We start trialing the hearing loop on one of our service 7 buses from Thursday (5 February) to gain feedback on its effectiveness.

The on-bus hearing loop system will be demonstrated to Visit Brighton’s Access for All team and Visit England who are due to visit as part of a project we are working on with city partners to help push forward the accessibility of our city. Partners include the Brighton Centre, Old Ship Hotel, Sea Life Centre, Churchill Square, Brighton Dome, Royal Pavilion, Thistle Brighton, Jury’s Inn and Hilton Metropole.

I am excited about the progress we are now making in addressing various accessibility issues. I can see real momentum building as this work comes together. The multi-operator Helping Hand scheme is proving hugely popular, the Taxi Guarantee scheme is in place, our Dementia Safe Havens are established and talking buses will be across the fleet later this year.

I suppose it should be obvious but a big lesson for me is just how interlinked the various accessibility solutions need to be. A number of our customers value the benefits of more than just one initiative. We are still learning when delivering these solutions and still looking for ways to improve. The input we have from customers is invaluable, as is the advice and support of partners at The Fed, Guide Dogs, Grace Eyre Foundation, Alzheimers Society and many others.

I must acknowledge the tremendous contribution of Victoria Garcia in this work. Victoria has a full-time role developing our accessibility initiatives.

If partners are aware of opportunities for us to improve our accessibility do contact victoria.garcia@buses.co.uk or me @citybusnews.