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Scrutiny report puts Southend's buses back on the council's map
Local Transport Today – 30 October 2008

Southend, a town of 160,000 people, has had no subsidised bus services since the local council's financial problems led to the abandonment of bus service funding in 2004. Mark Smulian examines how a scrutiny committee is trying to give fresh impetus to improving the town's bus services

Places such as Brighton and Hove have few subsidised services because a successful commercial network penetrates almost every corner of the city. In Southend, however, complaints from the public about 'absent' buses have grown sufficiently loud that councillors decided to use their scrutiny powers to have senior staff from bus operators appear before them.

Southend is one of few councils to have conducted such an in-depth examination of local bus services and the scrutiny committee's work highlighted a range of problems.

For example, the bus operators complained that the council does not support bus priority adequately - with the result that their vehicles are snarled up in town centre traffic - while the council for its part objected to supporting a telematics system for passenger information of which operators make only erratic use.

Southend is served by Arriva and First, descendents respectively of the pre-deregulation Southend Corporation and Eastern National networks, together with a few routes run by Stephensons of Essex. Buses in Southend are adequate, indeed quite frequent, on main routes in the daytime but the evening and Sunday service might politely be described, with a few exceptions, as 'skeleton'.

Loss of the subsidised services has also created some curious anomalies. For example, the north-western and south-western suburbs are linked only during the rush hours and on Tuesdays, one of the main shopping streets is served only on Thursdays and the town's main theatre complex has no bus service after the early evening, allowing patrons to travel to performances but not back from them.

Councillors received submissions from the public and interest groups that stressed the lack of evenings and Sunday services and of north-south links, poor services in the Leigh area in the south-west of the town and the use of buses that are not Disability Discrimination Act-complaint even on routes that serve the local hospital.

The troublesome telematics system is a joint venture by Southend, Thurrock and Essex County councils and evidence presented showed it is not being used "as widely as it should". This proved to be due to a combination of lack of confidence in the system, due to software and hardware faults causing problems with information displayed to drivers, and changes in the bus fleet causing delays while vehicles were refitted.

The councillors could not of course wave a wand - a scrutiny committee, for one thing, can only investigate topics and suggest action to the council. In addition, whilst reinstatement of subsidies is a perennial issue the council is financially strapped and engaged in an interminable argument with the Government over whether the 2001 census correctly calculated the town's population, which in turn governs how much grant in receives from Whitehall.

The scrutiny report called for a more formal partnership between the council and the operators through a working party to tackle the more intractable problems. It urged the council to use its planning powers to secure contributions from developers towards public transport projects.

Operators and the council should, it said, collaborate to find park-and-ride sites, review the network and frequencies and improve waiting areas. The report also, somewhat vaguely, urged Southend to explore with neighbouring councils use of the new powers to influence bus services in the Local Transport Act.

Funds still a problem

The cabinet member for regeneration and transport, Conservative councillor Anna Waite, says: "The scrutiny has been useful but to do anything you need a budget and there isn't one at present so we have got to decide whether to take the money from somewhere else for buses."

She says the council has "spent a lot of money on bus priority - traffic signals, well designed bus stops with information, drop kerbs and things that generally ease the journey - and we can't just spend more."

Subsidies will be kept under review but councillor Waite insists there are hard choices about how any bus budgets get used. "It's true the scrutiny identified gaps in provision but you do not necessarily need to fill them with a 9-5 service," she says. "There can be services that run once a week, for example we have a very successful one on Tuesdays in the Belfairs area that allows the pensioners to get to the shops in Leigh, and another that runs to Tesco.

"There are a lot more services in the east of the town but deprivation is greater there so you would expect a higher demand," Waite adds. "Some though do not run in the evenings, so we have to decide would we want more evening journeys to help people get to and from work or a daytime service in a more affluent part of the town."

Bob Door, managing director of First Essex, says the scrutiny helped with "some fundamental misunderstandings that we could clarify". "My main concern is about bus priority outside the A13 corridor and that is quite important," he says. "I don't think councillors had quite appreciated the issues. If we had priority measures elsewhere the buses would be speeded up and you'd be looking at the same number of vehicles to provide a 15 minute service instead of 20 minutes."

Use of the telematics system has improved but again Door found a lack of comprehension. "I recall one councillor saying it was 'not rocket science' but actually it is, it's fantastically complex using GPS tracking and it's an Essex-wide system with all sorts of people involved and until 18 months ago no-one seemed to lead it or have ownership, though things have improved since."

Kevin Hawkins, managing director of the local arm of Arriva, says the period after subsidies were withdrawn "put public transport operators in the spotlight and strained relationships somewhat because we got some of the blame from the public". Mr Hawkins is reviewing services with a view to changes in January, which may include improvements to the Tuesday link mentioned by Waite.

"It was a part of the old supported network about which there were particularly strong feelings and I thought I'd give one day a week a go since the coming of concessionary fares would mean more use and it could increase but I can't see it going daily," he says.

Door says new routes would need support from the Kickstart programme or some other external source but hopes that is now more likely. "You normally have the council sitting in one foxhole on a battlefield and the operators in another but the scrutiny meant we were able to meet," he says.

A working group is being set up and both sides hope it will be able to go beyond words and deliver more bus services.