Bus Services in South-east Wales

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

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Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

4. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve bus services in south-east Wales? OQ60710

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 2:12, 21 February 2024

Thank you. We are working at pace to bring forward the new Wales bus Bill later in the year to transform the way services are delivered across Wales, and I'm working closely with local authorities to develop a new bus network plan for south-east Wales.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru

My office recently found out that the direct bus link between Blackwood and the Grange Hospital has been axed after your Government funding came to an end. This is disappointing news, echoed across parties, not just for the people in the Blackwood area but also in Newbridge, Crumlin, Llanhilleth, Hafodyrynys, Pontypool and Griffithstown, as the bus stopped at these communities en route. Apart from being a big blow for the hospital's accessibility, this is also a big blow for our efforts to ease the climate crisis. The reality is that, for many people I represent in my region, a private car is the only viable option when it comes to getting to and from the Grange Hospital. For my constituents without a car, can they hope for better than two or more buses that they have to catch if they want to get to the Grange in the future? And can you also give an update on what any evaluation of pilot schemes in Newport or elsewhere in the south-east has had on your public transport plans?   

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour

Thank you. Well, the example of the Grange is a really interesting one and a bit of a case study, I think, of what is wrong with our current system and what our new system needs to do differently. Now, the commercial sector decided that they didn't think there was demand to the Grange from the communities in Blackwood but also in Blaenau Gwent, and therefore didn't put any services on when the hospital opened. There is a service from the Grange to Cwmbran and to Newport, where there are connections available, but not direct bus services. 

In order to use our powers of intervention, the first test has to be: has the commercial sector tried and failed? So, it had in this case. The second is: has the local authority under its legal duty to provide socially necessary routes tried and failed? And in this case, there was no appetite from the local authorities to intervene and provide their own support for a bus service, so we then looked to use our intervention powers, which can only be justified in narrow circumstances under the very complex legal framework that bus privatisation sets out. So, we did fund a six-month trial, which showed very low demand, as in fact the commercial operator said in the first place. About 10 passengers a day were dropped off at the Grange on the route from Blackwood. Now, it may be it needed more than six months in order to bed in and for people to know about it. It may be that, because there were no bus services as soon as the hospital was open, people got used to driving, and different patterns of behaviour were established. I guess we'll just not know. I think on reflection we should have tendered it for longer than six months, but finances are always very stretched.

I think the key thing now is to learn this lesson as we design the maps for franchising, and we identify routes to key public services as being socially necessary, and are included in the contracts that TfW award to the franchisee. So, I’ve asked TfW to look in particular at this case, this example, and to bear that in mind as they design their networks for when franchising comes in. 

Photo of Natasha Asghar Natasha Asghar Conservative 2:16, 21 February 2024

I couldn't agree more with Peredur, that we do definitely need better public transport to the Grange, and it’s an issue that I’ve raised many times here within the Chamber.

Deputy Minister, the key to improving bus services is to encourage more people back onto them in the first place. Time and time again I’ve asked and called for the Welsh Government to introduce a cap fare, especially after seeing how successful it has been just across the border. In England, the number of bus journeys has increased by 19.3 per cent in the year ending March 2023, yet my calls have fallen on deaf ears with the Government insisting that there isn’t enough money. And apparently there isn’t enough money to make bus travel free for young people, which is something that I’ve supported, and will support, and believe would certainly bring a lot of benefits to the industry. So, Deputy Minister, I’ve listened to a lot of the answers you’ve provided to a lot of my colleagues here today, and I know you love to blame Margaret Thatcher for all the woes under the sun, but you have been in charge for 25 years here in Wales. There is no-one else you can give blame to but yourselves on this. So, if you are reluctant to spend money incentivising bus travel, just how exactly is the Welsh Government going to boost bus patronage?

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 2:17, 21 February 2024

Well, we do exist within the legislative framework that is set in Westminster, so that is a fact, and we do exist within a funding system that is designed in Westminster—that also is a fact. And the way the Barnett formula is currently working and being interpreted by the Treasury and the Department for Transport means that we did not get a share of the money that was put into buses to get that £2 fare in England. I would love to have done the same, and I have rehearsed in this Chamber many times that we would, in fact, have wanted to reduce fares to a £1 flat fee, and had Cabinet agreement for that. Until Liz Truss blew up the economy, there was a sporting chance we could have done that, but there simply isn’t the money available now to do it as we face a £1.2 billion gap in our funding this financial year. So, these are the facts I have to work within, and I of course am desperately keen to increase modal share by public transport. That’s what’s in the targets I set in 'Llwybr Newydd', that’s what’s consistent with our climate change targets. We’re addressing some of that through the way we design the bus system, but we also need to have the funding to be able to do it.

Photo of Hefin David Hefin David Labour 2:18, 21 February 2024

In his response to Peredur Owen Griffiths, the Deputy Minister said that the average number of travellers on that bus to the Grange was 11 passengers a day. I've been told by Stagecoach it was actually 36 passengers a day, which, again, may not make it viable, but I still think we need to have a review of that pilot. My vision was that it would become part of an extended programme that would extend later on into my constituency, and also into routes that weren't currently covered, and it was disappointing that, partly, I suspect, the impact of inflation, but also the impact of the review of the service didn't allow it to continue.

I've also been contacted by constituents concerned about changes to transport to the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, and also issues in Aber valley, Bedwas, Trethomas and Machen, and from Bargoed as well. Therefore, on Friday 1 March, I'll be holding a bus users' surgery in Bedwas Workmen's Hall in Caerphilly. I'd like to feed back the information from that to the Minister. I'm also meeting this Friday with Stagecoach, in advance of that. What information can the Minister give me in advance of my meeting in Stagecoach, and my meeting with residents on 1 March, to give them reassurances that the current problems with the bus services are temporary, and that we are going to see change in the future?

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 2:20, 21 February 2024

Thank you. I'd be happy to check the figures he quoted, because they're different to the ones that I've been provided with by Stagecoach. But the point is, whether it's 10 or 30, there were small numbers. Nonetheless, it's socially necessary and we want to support bus services that are socially necessary and, as I've mentioned, we need to have the system and the finance to allow us to do that. I think we're all in agreement across this Chamber on the importance of a good bus service. 

I'd be very keen to get the feedback from Hefin David of the bus surgery that he is holding in his constituency, and I commend him for doing that. It's really important that we listen, not just to existing passengers, but those we want to encourage to use the buses, and that feedback will be very helpful for me to then pass on to TfW as they design the franchised system.

I think the message to give to constituents is that we need more people using buses, to make them more viable and to reduce the amount of subsidy that is needed, and we need to feed into the system that TfW are designing for franchising the key intelligence of where people want to be linked to. TfW will be using data from mobile telephones, so we know where people are currently travelling, and that is going to be a key data set used to design the networks, but that also needs to be based on citizen feedback too. So, I'm very keen to follow up with Hefin David to understand the feedback he has from his constituents.

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative

Thank you very much. I do apologise, Presiding Officer, but I am not ready.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru

Well, I'm very grateful for your honesty.

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative 2:22, 21 February 2024

I can read it now though, if that's okay?

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru

Yes, you've bought sufficient time now to read your question out.