The Corporate Director - Communities introduced this report, the purpose of which, was to set out the wider context, background and reasons for the Bus Emergency Scheme (BES) and seek agreement for Bridgend County Borough Council (BCBC) to agree to the principles of the BES2 agreement and to establish a relationship with the regional lead authority and signatory that ensures that the ongoing emergency funding meets BCBC’s priorities and is delivered on BCBC’s behalf.
The Head of Operations – Community Services explained that, bus travel had been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Passenger numbers had plummeted, whilst social distancing and additional cleansing requirements had placed added burdens and costs on operators.
Welsh Government (WG) and local authorities (LAs) had stepped in he explained, to support the sector with substantial financial assistance. There had also been an excellent, ongoing dialogue between all parties to discuss and agree on support arrangements, he added.
The Head of Operations – Community Services continued, by advising that the Minister of Economy and Transport, had met with Leaders of all 22 LAs, along with his officials, to outline WG’s direction of travel. Further details have been included in the Wales Transport Strategy (WTS) which has been the subject of consultation. More recently, the Deputy Minister, Lee Waters MS, met with all Leaders to discuss the WTS but also to encourage LAs to sign up to the Bus Emergency Scheme 2 (BES2). This was the latest phase of financial support to help operators through the period of the pandemic.
Alongside this, WG stepped in to help operators deal with reduced income on commercially operated routes and the additional costs being incurred. Initially, WG made £29m available from a Hardship Fund, which operated from April 2020 for three months. This fund was assembled from monies that would otherwise have been paid via Bus Services Support Grant (BSSG), Mandatory Concessionary Fare reimbursement and the ‘My Travel Pass’ scheme.
The Bus Emergency Scheme was then introduced in July to provide ongoing support. This became known as ‘BES 1’ and it continued to maintain operators’ income at historic levels, based on what was being paid to them under previous grant schemes. In return for this financial support WG signalled that it expected operators to contribute to a reshaping of bus services in Wales, to include improved regional networks with greater integration with rail services, smart ticketing and timetabling.
Turning to the present situation, the Head of Operations – Community Services advised, that BES 2 will continue to address the loss of fare box revenue and the additional costs associated with responding to the pandemic. Under BES 2 the WG funding will sit alongside local authority funding provided through the Concessionary Travel Scheme and via Revenue Support Grant, with the Bus Services Support Grant to make up the shortfall.
WG would be a co-signatory to the BES 2 agreement with bus operators, along with TfW. This is currently still under discussion and may be subject to changes before it is finalised. LAs retain legal responsibilities for bus services and therefore remained central to determining which local services receive this support. They would need to sign up to the principle of the agreement and the relationship with their Lead Authority, in ensuring that the ongoing emergency funding meets their priorities and is delivered on their behalf.
This would provide the legal basis for WG to make payments to the operators. In this way, WG could use its powers to support operators, whereas the additional funding would breach LAs de minimis limits for direct award contracts (further details in the briefing note in Appendix 1 and the full proposed Agreement in Appendix 2, to the report). LAs would remain responsible for those services which they currently contract directly with bus operators. LAs would need to consider planning for contingencies, such as if the BES2 agreement is not signed or the level of funding for BES2 is reduced during the period of the agreement.
Key features of BES 2 were shown in paragraph 4.4 of the report.
The Head of Operations – Community Services concluded his submission, by advising that the costs of BES2 were funded through WG to Monmouthshire County Council as lead authority. In signing up to BES2, local authorities were therefore agreeing to financial support being provided to the bus sector.
The Cabinet Member – Communities confirmed that he was happy with the report, the provisions of which, would allow bus companies to access some avenues of funding.
The Leader advised that he too supported the funding for the bus industry through a cash investment from Welsh Government.
He added that he also supported the regional bus service approach adopted in Bridgend, whereby services were provided to/from the County Borough into neighbouring areas, as this ensured the continuity of an effective public transport scheme for users.
RESOLVED: That Cabinet:
• Agreed to the principles of the BES 2 agreement (Appendix 2 to the report) to secure (conditional) financial support for the bus sector and delegate authority to the Corporate Director – Communities to establish a relationship with the regional lead authority and signatory, that ensures that the ongoing emergency funding meets BCBC’s priorities and is delivered on its behalf.
• Receives a further report on bus reform proposals relating to the future management of bus services in Wales in due course.