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Strategic bus review for Cambridgeshire suggests 'enhanced partnership' between Stagecoach and the Combined Authority

By Josh Thomas, Local Democracy Reporter

Better bus services in Cambridgeshire could be on the way, but there are concerns proposals will not come into effect quickly enough to help communities in need.

Better bus services in Cambridgeshire could be on the way.
Better bus services in Cambridgeshire could be on the way.

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority’s strategic bus review has suggested a closer “enhanced partnership” between bus operators Stagecoach and the authority could be the key to helping get more people to use public transport in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

Engineering consultants SYSTRA, who undertook the strategic review, say better bus services in the county are essential to get people out of their cars as the region’s population and economy expands. In their report, they say it is “imperative” to improve air quality and reduce congestion, and that people will only use buses if there is a better, more reliable service. They say that, with better partnership, a better “minimum service” can be established to make buses a more reliable way to get around.

Failing this, the report says, the combined authority can look at taking “complete control” of the bus network in Cambridgeshire through bus franchising.

A business case and consultation could be completed by early 2021, but some have warned this is not quick enough, and that action needs to be taken now to sort out the county’s transport problems.

“Despite the presence of an open, deregulated bus market, there is very little actual competition between operators in the CPCA area,” the SYSTRA report reads. “The only significant overlap in services was between Whippet and Stagecoach on sections of the busway.

“Recognising that the deregulated market may not always be the most effective delivery model to meet local authority aspirations, recent legislation (Bus Services Act 2017) provides for a range of interventions to modify the fully deregulated model introduced in 1986. Agreement with Operators could be encompassed within an Enhanced Partnership under the Bus Services Act 2017.

“If the operator was unwilling to meet these requirements, the CPCA would be able to propose incorporating it within its own network.

“Under a partnership, CPCA would have an expanded influence over local bus service delivery, but with very little leverage to enforce its plans and operators still at liberty to take commercial decisions, albeit under Enhanced Partnership there is the potential for such decisions to be moderated in line with jointly agreed plans and schemes.”

The report recommends that communication, branding, and ease of user access are reviewed in line with network options to ensure an effective approach is taken. It also says there should be a “simplified, flat fare system for Peterborough and Cambridge” and discounted fares for young apprentices, jobseekers, over 60s, as well as promotional packages for new residents and employees of new developments.

Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge and former shadow buses minister, welcomed the report, but said the process needs to be speeded up.

Mr Zeichner said: “I am disappointed with the timescales outlined in the report. 2021 is too long to wait for the business cases to be developed.

“The report is long on generalisations about transport in general, and weak on local specifics and data. We all know that services in and around Cambridge are expensive and services frequently delayed, most recently because of severe driver shortages.”

James Palmer, mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, however, said it would inevitably take time to deliver such a large “step change” in local transport.

Mr Palmer said: “The system isn’t working and we need change. We want a bus network that will be model for others to follow. Our Board meets on January 30 to decide the next steps, including a recommendation to develop a business case for a step-change, which includes exploring franchising and enhanced partnerships.

“The business case would take about two years. We need time to develop a robust case that ensures that we have a sound basis for any step-change. In the meantime there is an opportunity to create a bus taskforce of local partners to start delivering improvements quickly.”

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