Isolated, rural communities in Derbyshire could get cheaper and more regular buses in what may be an overhaul of services in the county.
The Government asked councils to either launch a franchise – buying up control of bus services – or to work in partnership with private firms to make urgent improvements.
The key aims are to provide more frequent services at a lower cost to passengers, along with priorities to provide regular buses for isolated areas and the potential for more environmentally-friendly vehicles.
Derbyshire County Council has promptly ruled out the vastly expensive and legally complex process of starting a franchise, which would strip private firms of their services and leave the authority needing to buy vehicles and depots and ask companies to bid for routes.
It must publish a detailed improvement plan by the end of October and have an “enhanced partnership” agreement in place from April next year, as mandated by central government.
Cllr Kewal Singh Athwal has grand plans for the partnership, still in its extremely early stages, and wants to make sure communities who depend on bus services, wherever they are, have regular service.
He is also keen to promote “cleaner and greener” buses.
Cllr Athwal, who is the country’s first Sikh highways cabinet member, said: “We want to try and improve our bus services, to improve our connectivity within our towns and villages and have some more frequency and have a cheaper form of travel.
“It helps not only in connecting communities but also, hopefully, the climate in the sense of perhaps taking more vehicles off the road and more bus use will be encouraged by having cheaper fares and better connectivity.
“I think all communities require this service, but I suppose the rural side of the community, where the bus services are very infrequent, they probably require a bit more attention.”
When asked if the council had a strong position to push for improvements and better fares, he said: “The feedback we have had from bus operators is that they are very keen on this partnership, which provides a better level of service.
“Due to Covid, the usage of bus services has dropped tremendously and bus operators are looking to increase that, we can work together to bring bus usage back up to levels pre-Covid.
“My aims are to give our residents in Derbyshire a better value, cheaper service, a more regular service and more frequency of buses, cleaner buses and better quality buses.”
Central government has given the council £100,000 to develop the “enhanced partnership” model, which includes public consultation.
The council currently spends £35 million a year on transport services including school transport. This includes £10 million to give older and disabled people free off-peak travel.
Derbyshire bus services have been hit by some of the highest budget cuts of all English authorities in the past few years.
In late 2019, data published by the Campaign for Better Transport shows that the county has been stripped of more than half of its funding for bus services.
The county is one of the largest and most rural counties in England and for thousands of residents buses are the only mode of transport available.
Routes in Derbyshire are often only used by a handful of people, but for those residents they represent a vital lifeline.
It has had 60 per cent of its government funding for bus services cut since 2010 – from £7.2 million to £2.9 million. This was the fifth largest reduction of all of English local authorities.
However, the data also shows that the county council now subsidises the highest total number of miles travelled by local bus services – 16.2 million miles, more than any other English council.
It supports the sixth-highest proportion of bus miles – lending subsidies to 22 per cent of the overall miles covered by buses in the county.
But due to reduced funding, the authority cut council support for 26 routes in 2018 – more than any other local authority.
Cllr Simon Spencer, highways cabinet member at the time, said 13 of these had been upheld by private firms and the routes were largely evening and weekend routes supporting other main services.
He said many of the county’s routes had a higher “cost per head” due to the geographic size of Derbyshire, along with its hilly terrain, making routes for rural communities more expensive and less profitable.
Hear from Cllr Kewal Singh Athwal on bus services in Derbyshire in the video at the top of the page. Video by Eddie Bisknell.