Modest additional funding from the Welsh Government will protect bus services in Wales until the end of March 2024, members of the Senedd Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee were told by the industry on 11 May.
The session heard of worries among operators, local authorities and politicians over what will otherwise happen if the Bus Emergency Scheme (BES) ends as scheduled on 24 July. Deputy Minister for Climate Change Lee Waters previously said that a “skeleton” level of provision could result between then and the planned introduction of franchising.
Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) Director Aaron Hill and Newport Transport Managing Director and Coach and Bus Association Cymru Chair Scott Pearson both told the Committee that a relatively low sum of new money – potentially as little as £10 million – will allow current service levels to be maintained until 31 March 2024.
Critical to any such funding would be its combination with unspent concessionary reimbursement. The precise value of the latter pot is unknown, but Welsh Local Government Association Leader Cllr Andrew Morgan says that 25% of the total allocated to concessionary payments is thought to be the amount in hand.
“The Minister has agreed to ringfence that funding for use as part of the extension of BES,” he continues. Mr Pearson adds that discussions between the Welsh Government and operators have also indicated that the concessionary underspend will go towards protecting services post-July.
Whether the called for additional funding will materialise remains to be seen, but “the sums are being done behind the scenes,” says Mr Hill. He believes that a willingness to find a solution exists within the Welsh Government.
Against current uncertainty over funding, bus patronage is growing in Wales. Mr Hill notes that country-wide, it is at around 80% of pre-pandemic levels. Reasonable stability in networks under BES has contributed to that, Mr Pearson believes. Wholesale change if the Scheme comes to an end in July will undo that work, he continues.
Should the worst happen, Mr Hill estimates that in one part of Wales only 20% of bus services would be left untouched as a result of a withdrawal of revenue funding.
That unspent concessionary funding is available to support bus services is as a result of ongoing poor recovery of passenger numbers in that demographic. Mr Hill estimates that across Wales, around 50-60% of those users have returned so far.
If the hoped-for additional money is allocated by ministers, it need to come soon. “Pace is really, really key,” says the CPT Cymru Director, noting that “we have to put a bit of fire under the [Welsh] Government to get things moving quickly” when notice periods around service changes are considered.
Read the transcript of the Committee session here.