A new bus passenger forum, an inquiry day into bus services and more information on the impact of subsidy cuts are the main outcomes of today's scrutiny meeting into bus services in Cornwall.
In order to avoid bus routes being cut this year, it was also suggested that any shortfall in subsidy should be met from the council's reserves.
The discussion was a pretty encouraging one but which contained some gob-smacking statements from Cabinet member Graeme Hicks. He seemed proud of his negotiating strategy which was based around a letter that the bus companies perceived to be a take it or leave it demand that they accept cuts to their subsidy levels. 'It brought them to the table' appeared to be his attitude. There also appeared to be an attitude that Cornwall Council could run bus services better than the bus companies.
Cllr Bob Egerton led the debate with comments about the difference between this proposal which would cut bus routes and the well-intentioned desire in the Council's local transport plan for far more bus routes in Cornwall. He also pointed out that the bus companies are making almost no profit and the amount that the authority wants to take away from them is more than ten times their annual profit.
Tory Cllr Pat Lambshead raised the issue of people from outside Cornwall coming to use our buses while they are on holiday. He proposed that we might want to restrict the use of free passes to Cornish residents only. It was acknowledged that this is not something currently allowed by the law and councillors also warned that this would be the equivalent of a tourist tax targeted only at older people.
More widely supported was the view that every bus pass holder might be asked to contribute part of their fare (as was the case before 2003) or might have to pay for their pass. My personal view is that this would be wrong in many cases. While there are undoubtedly some people who can afford to pay, there are many Cornish residents who simply cannot afford any contribution towards bus fares and without buses they would be without access to friends, family or employment.
One of my core questions related to why the council is trying to make savings at this point of the year. Our budget was set in February on the basis of the grant levels given by the Government and the level of council tax we are prepared to charge. Apparently officers knew that the figures for reimbursing bus companies were too low but were pinning their hopes on lobbying the government to give them more money. Not surprisingly, the Government refused and so the budget is facing a shortfall. Although not voted on today, my colleague Roy Taylor's proposal that any shortfall be met from reserves this year seemed to be generally supported and will be formally voted on in September. If passed, this would at least ensure that we don't see bus routes disappearing in the near future.
In the meantime, the discussions between the council and the bus companies will continue, but now there will also be discussions with passenger groups and we will hold an inquiry day during the summer.