Ken Skates, Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure
Local scheduled bus services are the foundation of our public transport system.. More people in Wales use buses as a public transport alternative to the private motor vehicle for their daily commute to work and for leisure. In 2014-15, local bus services in Wales accounted for more than 101m passenger journeys, significantly more than the journeys undertaken on our rail network. About half of these bus journeys have been undertaken by disabled and older people as part of our free travel concessionary scheme. This illustrates the important contribution our local bus services make in maintaining independent living, social cohesion and general well being.
This summer - and despite the funding provided through schemes such as our Bus Services Support Grant and our free bus travel schemes for older people -I have been saddened by the demise of three local bus companies serving some of our more rural communities. Rightly, our thoughts are with the drivers, workshop and office staff and their families who are directly affected by these closures. But we must also consider the wider social and economic impacts on the communities affected by the loss of these important service providers.
Since my appointment as Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure I have been keen to understand how I can support the bus industry to achieve a financially viable and sustainable future, not just in the short-term, but also over the longer-term so we have an integrated bus network that equitably serves every community in Wales.
I am keen to work with the bus industry, local government and passengers’ groups to deliver a stable or growing bus network, which I consider to be vital in providing people with the confidence to choose the bus. I know that action is needed to tackle congestion on our roads to improve journey times, reliability and punctuality. Congestion, especially at peak times, is a real issue for many bus operators.
I welcome the commitment from bus operators in Wales to improve the quality and accessibility of our local bus services. These are challenges we need to face in partnership and we must recognise the additional pressures presented to our smaller bus operators. I am convinced that smaller bus operators have a vital contribution to make to an integrated transport system in Wales. I want to ensure that small and medium sized bus operators have access to the advice and support that will help them become better and more resilient businesses.
Today therefore, I am announcing a five-point plan to support the bus industry – and SMEs in particular – to become more sustainable and better able to ride out temporary economic challenges.
First of all, I will be offering all bus companies in Wales assistance that Business Wales and Finance Wales are able to provide. Dedicated professional support to review operators’ existing bus networks to design improved, more efficient networks will be offered. Linked to that, I will be asking local authorities to make every effort to protect their bus support in an economic climate that I recognise as being challenging, ensuring that public sector procurement is firmly rooted in the principles of mutual benefit for all parties to the agreement made.
Second, I will work proactively with local authorities to identify potentially vulnerable bus services, and put in place a local strategy to respond to any planned withdrawal of services that are considered vital to the sustainability and wellbeing of the local community.
Third, I will meet the leaders of the local authorities in Cardiff and Newport together with the Managing Directors of their municipal bus companies, to gather intelligence on how sustainable bus networks can be operated whilst maintaining the social dividend. Working with the Confederation of Passenger Transport, I am keen to secure the best characteristics of the private commercial sector with the social responsibility of the public sector operators in Wales.
Fourth, I will be providing funding for the establishment of the role of a new bus co-ordinator post within one of the North and South Wales local authorities. This will help bring together all of the various strands of policy and investment and help to develop the statutory bus Quality Partnership model within the areas, and which can be developed across Wales.
Finally, I am today announcing a Bus Services Summit to be held early in 2017. I have asked my officials to work with local authorities, bus operators, Bus Users Cymru, the Community Transport Association, groups representing disabled people and other stakeholders to make the summit a success.
My ambition is to support the delivery of a quality, equitable and sustainable bus network that provides communities and individuals with services they need and achieves value for money for the public funding we provide.