Bus Routes in North Wales

1. Questions to the Minister for Climate Change – in the Senedd at on 21 February 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Llyr Gruffydd Llyr Gruffydd Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision of bus routes in north Wales? OQ60698

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

5. Will the Minister provide an update on bus services in north Wales communities? OQ60701

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 1:39, 21 February 2024

Llywydd, I understand you've given your permission for questions 3 and 5 to be grouped. We are working at pace to transform the quality of local buses to serve communities across Wales. In advance of the bus Bill, which we hope to introduce later this year, we continue to provide additional funding to local authorities and Transport for Wales to improve existing services across the region.

Photo of Llyr Gruffydd Llyr Gruffydd Plaid Cymru 1:40, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

Well, thank you. As you consider that work of improving services, I will remind that it's been a year since the T19 bus service between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Llandudno was lost. Of course, it served communities across the Conwy valley, from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolwyddelan, Betws-y-coed, Llanrwst, and down the valley to the coast. Now, when that service was lost, local residents were told to use the train, which, of course, doesn't run anywhere near as often and which has been very unreliable recently because storms have washed the railroad away. 

Now, we're in a position where elderly and vulnerable people are finding it difficult without the bus service to access services, such as going to Conwy or Llandudno to see their GP, or to hospital, or to access other services. And to mark a year since the loss of that service, three Plaid Cymru councillors—Councillor Elfed Wyn ap Elwyn from Blaenau Ffestiniog, Liz Roberts from the Betws-y-coed ward, and Nia Clwyd Owen from Llanrwst—walked the 30 miles of the route that the bus would have taken until a year ago. Now, the fact that that's happening a full 12 months after the loss of the service, for me, reflects what a great loss the loss of that route was. So, can I ask you, Deputy Minister, whether you will commit to working with the relevant local authorities and with possible providers to try and restore that service, because there is no doubt that it is greatly needed in the Conwy valley?

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 1:41, 21 February 2024

Thank you. Well, I agree that the current bus network is not what we would like it to be. I think we've rehearsed many times in this Chamber the pressures facing the bus industry from reduced patronage and increased cost and shortage of drivers, as well as the fragmented commercialised service that I mentioned in relation to the question earlier. We have identified, as part of our agreement with Plaid Cymru, an extra £46 million on top of the existing subsidy of some £200 million this year for bus services to be supported. And that includes the TrawsCymru service, which does provide, for those communities it does serve, an excellent service, with modernised buses and lower fares and ticketing connectivity. 

So, where the services are there, the services are good, but there are patches that are not served. And we want to work with the regional consortia, because providing socially necessary buses remains a legal responsibility of local authorities, and they have ability of their own to raise funds and to provide those services themselves. They have that power and they have that legal duty. So, we do need to work together with them to see what, together, we can do to provide for the people of the region. We have created what we're calling the 'regional bus scrums' to bring together local authorities, TfW and the Welsh Government to plan, ahead of franchising, where those ideal bus networks would go. Funding is a constraint, and, at the moment, because patronage is still low, these are not viable commercially and they can only run, in many cases, with public support, and we have a finite amount of support that we can give. But I will happily go back and check with the regional scrum for north Wales to understand what provision can be made for those villages, and I'd be happy to write to the Member with details.

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you very much, Llywydd, and thank you to the Deputy Minister for the response that he has just given to Llyr. I'm going to follow the same kind of route, because, as Llyr said, the T19 has proven to be extremely important to the community of Blaenau Ffestiniog that I represent, and, indeed, to the Conwy valley and elsewhere. I read recently a report by Age Cymru that warned that elderly people in particular would suffer more loneliness and isolation as a result of the closure of bus routes, and that people wouldn't be able to access services. That's what we've seen in Blaenau Ffestiniog—older people not being able to travel to Llandudno. But as well as older people, we've seen young people not being able to get to school in Llanrwst and, therefore, having to use private cars, which, as the Deputy Minister will appreciate, is not beneficial for the environment. 

I'm pleased to hear that the Deputy Minister has said that the Government will look to provide more funding for local authorities in order to get better bus provision, and that you have these scrums that you referred to a moment ago. But, as Llyr said, it's been a full 12 months and more since the T19 route closed. I'm given to understand that when that route, which was the X19, became the TrawsCymru T19, it was supposed to receive more funding; it didn't. I'm also given to understand that, a year and more ago, the Alpine company had offered to work with the local authorities and the Government in order to find a resolution, but there has been no collaboration. So, it's disappointing that 12 months have passed—

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 1:45, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

Can we have a question, please? 

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

I will come to my question. Thank you, Llywydd. It is disappointing that nothing has happened. So, I want a commitment that you are not only willing to go to this scrum, that you mentioned, but also to work with local providers in order to find an alternative solution to the needs of Blaenau Ffestiniog and the Conwy valley. 

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour

Well, indeed, I will remind the Member of what I said to his colleague. Providing socially necessary bus services is a legal responsibility of local authorities. So, rather than looking entirely to the Welsh Government to address the problems in his area, he needs to be looking as well to his own local authorities.

Now, all of us face the same financial pressures, and none of this is easy, and we are all facing the shortcomings of the privatised system. We have recently introduced the new T22 bus service, which links Blaenau Ffestiniog with Caernarfon, and new flexi services in the Dolgellau and Machynlleth areas, and those are widely welcomed. Transport for Wales, in its planning, has been looking at creating strong regional networks that improve journey times and link up to key interchanges. So, as I say, where the services are in place, the feedback from customers and passengers is very positive. But there are gaps, and often that is because the patronage in those areas was very low, and the subsidy required is simply one that we don't have at the moment, and these are conversations we've had with Plaid Cymru, as part of the budget agreement. You know very well the situation we are facing. We have finite funds, and we've agreed joint priorities for those funds, and we agreed to look at bus funding and, indeed, identified an additional £46 million. That doesn't go as far as we would all like it to go, and that's why, I think, we need to work with local authorities to see what other resources might be brought to bear to improve the network.

And as we move to franchising, we'll publish a plan in the next couple of weeks setting out the detailed next steps to take us to franchising. We hope we'll be able to have more comprehensive bus networks, but that, again, will always depend upon the funding. We do think franchising in itself is a more efficient system. So, more money will go to services, rather than to profit, but there's always going to be a constraint. And the best thing we can all do to improve bus services is encourage people to use the ones that exist, because that then creates the case for further investment.

Photo of Mark Isherwood Mark Isherwood Conservative 1:47, 21 February 2024

Well, questioning you here last month, I quoted Arriva Bus Wales, whose head of commercial north-west and Wales told me, quote:

'As we discussed in Wrexham, Arriva do not want to change services, but have to because of 20 mph...because of 20 mph, the buses are taking longer to operate across north Wales, so we’ve had to register changes that have seen route curtailment, frequency reduction and additional resource to cope with the new running times required.'

In response, you told me you were very keen to engage with them. They also told me that with the Bus Services Act 2017, creating bus franchising in England, Manchester had had to spend £75 million to £100 million to launch this there, and that Manchester had also had to introduce a council tax bus precept, and asked how the Welsh Government were going to fund bus franchising in Wales, when they don't have enough to fund the current network, where, quote, 'the people need to know'. So, what engagement have you had with Arriva Bus Wales since last month? And how are you going to fund the additional cost of bus franchising in Wales? 

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 1:49, 21 February 2024

Okay, so do I understand from the Member's question that he is not in favour of franchising, because, of course, that requires investment? We're not introducing the same system as Manchester is; we're introducing a different system, which will be based on regional franchising, and it will be done under a whole one-guided mind system, and TfW and the regional consortia will have a key role in designing that.

Now, I did speak to the teams at TfW, who have been working with Arriva, to understand the exact nature of the conversations we've been having with them around the planning of the 20 mph roll out. I don't think it's fair or accurate for Arriva to blame the changes to the the timetable on 20 mph. Other companies have managed to plan that without achieving such adverse consequences. But there are areas where the routes are going down roads, which, arguably, could well be turned back to 30 mph. Now, we have local authorities in north Wales who have not used the discretion that they have under the current guidance to introduce exceptions, and I think that is a question for them to explain why that is. Rather than Arriva blaming the policy, I think it is the local implementation of it in those areas that could have been better planned with Arriva. This is part of the review that is ongoing that we published today an interim report from, and that is saying that you need to look at bus routes as part of an extended version of the new guidance, to remind the local authorities of the discretion that they do have.

I don't think the right answer is always to turn routes and roads and streets where people and traffic mix back to 30 mph when the heaviest vehicles can travel fast down them. That is not always the right answer. We can get better bus timetable throughput from bus priority measures, and that involves some difficult decisions, which I very much doubt the honourable Member—oh, where did that come from—would support. So, it's all very well huffing and puffing about the need to make change, but you also have to follow through the necessary things on the ground to allow that change to happen. Putting in bus priority measures is a key thing for making buses more reliable, which allows for more passengers and for more routes. I think there is a question about some of the detailed routes Arriva have and whether or not the guidance needs to be changed on some of those routes, but as I told him last time, other bus companies anticipated the changes coming in and changed their timetables in advance. And given the range of pressures on the bus service, to blame it all on 20 mph simply isn't correct and I think is disingenuous, and I would remind the Member that if it was not for the Welsh Government Arriva wouldn't be in business. So, I don't think it's a fair criticism. I think there's a lot more behind it. Some of their concern is fair, about the way the bus services haven't been designed around the exemptions, and that is something that the local authorities and us need to look at. Thank you.

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies Conservative 1:52, 21 February 2024

Access to bus services is vital for people in the Vale of Clwyd in getting from A to B and supporting the local economy. Something that has severely hampered that in my constituency is the Welsh Government's default 20 mph policy, as Arriva Buses Wales—[Interruption.]. Arriva Buses Wales, I must repeat, have recently withdrawn stops on the X51 route, including at Tweedmill factory outlet, because it's taking too long, basically, from Rhyl to Denbigh and vice versa under 20 mph, as only 0.6 per cent—yes, again, I repeat, 0.6 per cent—of roads in the county have been exempt from this draconian policy. So, what assessment has the Minister made on the economic and logistical impact of the default 20 mph policy for people and businesses in my constituency, and what work and discussions are you undertaking with the relevant bodies to protect bus services for people in Denbighshire who have been badly let down by your ignorance on this matter?

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 1:53, 21 February 2024

Well, Llywydd, I slipped earlier into a very odd bit of Westminster language—I don't know where that came from—so let me use a more deliberate bit of Westminster language to Gareth Davies: I refer the Member to the answer I gave a moment ago.