It was slightly reminiscent of the Dunkirk spirit last Friday afternoon when Bridgwater transport company Webberbus suddenly collapsed and the Transport providers of the County realised they’d have to start working together and quick. Derek Harvey of First busses was quick off the mark and the call went out to his drivers “Let’s bring everyone home safe”. No-one was left stranded and even people without the money were picked up by the flotilla of small (and not so small) replacement busses tracing over the abandoned Webber routes. But it was also a time for Somerset County Council to respond quickly. Today at the Bridgwater Transport Forum’s special meeting we found out exactly what that meant.
Cllr Moira Brown (Labour Eastover), Chair of the Transport Forum, had invited county’s service commissioning manager Jane Newell and operational service manager John Perrett to Bridgwater Town Hall to face the delegates and discuss a way forward.
First on the scene
The crisis had started mid afternoon on Friday 20th May when the news hit that Webberbus had suddenly ceased trading. County immediately came up with an action plan to put in place other providers. Statutory and Commercial routes were all covered. Busses were ferried in from elsewhere in the country and all services were provided-although some might have been a bit late. First Busses were first to the rescue – largely because they already duplicated many of the Webber services, but County, as service commissioners, had faced up to and solved the immediate crisis but now had to plan for the long term.
Jane Newell outlined Somerset’s plans to cover services for an interim period and confirmed there will be a full transport consultation before any cuts or changes are made. John Perrett said he was talking to First about commercial services they can provide, once confirmed they will put the remaining service out to consultation. He added “School routes are now out to tender and will be placed before new term starts.” He confirmed that he was ‘hopeful’ to fill all services but emphasised that “…commercial routes would be open to any provider but subsidised routes cannot be open to commercial.”
Cllr Brown, on behalf of the Forum, made it clear that they were supportive of County’s initial response and joined County Councillors Leigh Redman (Bridgwater South) and Ann Bown (Bridgwater West) in thanking the County officers for their hard work and expressing their sorrow for the workers that had lost their jobs.
Glen Burrows (Friends of Bridgwater Station) said “This must be a turning point when Somerset should step up to the line and take their responsibility seriously about rural transport.” She re-emphasised the Town Council’s policy to urge the County to re-establish a county wide Transport Forum and was supported by a unanimous vote of the delegates present.
Ian Tucker (Bridgwater Forward) said “Rural services will be dramatically affected” and was also concerned about the limited provision in the town and wondered how confident county were that external operators would come forward.
Tom Dougal (Sedgemoor) asked about subsidies and how they are shared. John Perret explained that these were “..based on need and access and also dependent on the responses to the consultation. Big response equals a subsidised service.” Jane Newell explained that the number of bus users in Somerset is very low. Mike Slade (Inland Waterways) suggested using appropriate sized busses for appropriate routes and this led to delegates urging other solutions such as community car share or lessening the strict requirements on service providers to make route take up easier.
Transport ‘vital to people’s existence’
Cllr Brian Smedley (Westover Labour) said “Maybe it takes a crisis like this to show how much people depend on transport and how the solution has to be a co-ordinated one. Too often the result of a Casino economy is people being left high and dry when they’re left out of the provision altogether for commercial reasons. “ He also asked if the County officers were able to quash local rumours that the Police were investigating the collapse of Webberbus and was told that County Officers ‘couldn’t possibly comment’.
Glen Burrows continued “The elephant in the room is clearly that a responsible local authority must see what happens when they don’t have a regulated public transport service. The prime concern is reliability. Transport is vital to peoples existence.”
Cllr Ann Bown (Con, Bridgwater West) said “We’re all very sorry for the workers who lost their jobs but people don’t realise what a difficult job this is. I see villages with only 3 people on the bus and then they just use their pass cards. It’s not really bringing revenue is. It’s a case of use it or lose it. Maybe the Towns and Parishes could put some money in!”
Cllr Moira Brown summed up “The transport situation is dire around here and Bridgwater people feel they are victims. It’s so important that people engage with the consultation process to show exactly what the demand is.”
Information for bus routes is available on the county web . The County Consultation will also be available on the same website.