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Bristol Post
Bristol Post
Alex Seabrook

Free birthday bus plan questioned by council leaders left in the dark

A plan to give residents living in Bristol and the wider region free bus travel during their birthday month has been questioned by council leaders. The £8-million scheme starts next month and gives passengers a free bus pass to use during the month of their birthday.

Dan Norris, the West of England metro mayor, announced the new birthday bus initiative last month. Some critics of the “gimmick” raised questions about whether the millions in funding would be better spent on restoring some subsidised bus routes, which were recently axed.

Now the plan has faced further questions, as council bosses in the region said they were not consulted about the initiative before it was announced. During a meeting of the West of England Combined Authority, on Friday, June 16, they called for more cooperation in future.

Read more: Bus franchising would be easier ‘if Bristol had a tram network’

Councillor Claire Young, the new Liberal Democrat leader of South Gloucestershire Council, said: “The WECA mayor was able to make a public announcement about the buses without consulting the partner authorities beforehand. As a new administration, we would want better oversight of the decision-making going forward, so that we can work together to develop policy and demonstrate how we’re delivering the best outcomes for our residents.

“While I’m supportive of fare package initiatives, I do think we need to work in partnership so we can collectively explain how our new fare packages deliver value for money and seek to address inequalities. We’re really keen that future fare packages should focus on the most disadvantaged residents, including for example discounts for benefit claimants, disabled people and young people entering the job market.”

The metro mayor said he was “amazed” that some councillors were previously unaware of his plans for the free birthday bus initiative. He also suggested that the problem was due to council staff not informing leading councillors about their work, including on public transport.

Mr Norris said: “Obviously the birthday buses initiative has been worked on for a very long time, and the thing — having been a former government minister — that jumps out at me, is I’m amazed that many councillors do not know what is going on. I’m wondering: are officers talking about the work that they’re doing and consulting with their members?

“We must try and work out how we make sure we know what’s going on, and I think we need to review what’s happened, because bus companies have been working on this for a year or more, they are very keen to get on. Hundreds and hundreds of hours of staff time have been spent working on this, and yet members do not know what’s happened.

“I have to ask why that is, it’s a genuine question, not apportioning blame, just saying an odd thing that so much work is being done, and yet people have not been involved, have not asked about this prior to this point.”

However, the initiative had not been discussed in the past two years by the combined authority’s transport board, according to Cllr Sarah Warren, Liberal Democrat cabinet member for sustainable transport on Bath and North East Somerset Council. She said: “It’s a little odd that it hasn’t come to that board over the last couple of years.”

Applications to get free bus travel can be made online — on the website which is not yet live — and a pass card will be sent out in the post. Anybody living in Bristol, Bath, South Gloucestershire, or North East Somerset can apply.

The initiative will last for 12 months and is aiming to get more people in the region in the habit of using buses. It’s hoped that after using a bus for a month for free, some might stick with the habit afterwards. West of England bosses are trying to change people’s travel behaviour, to reduce private car use and cut congestion and pollution.

Mr Norris said: “We have to do something that creates bus use, because the problem with simply supporting existing systems that are currently failing to some degree, is that you don’t get future change. We have to get future change and we have to get more people on the buses.

“To be frank we have to get people not making no journeys in cars, but fewer journeys in cars. There’s got to be behaviour change, that’s what we’re trying to achieve. I think it’s very exciting.”

Despite the calls for "behaviour change", it appears that none of the committee themselves used public transport to travel to the meeting, held at the Bawa Leisure Centre in Filton. At the start of the meeting, Christina Biggs, from Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways, said: “I took the Number 2 bus and I got out and walked up here. I would like to challenge any of you guys: who else came here by public transport?”

Nobody sat on the committee — including Mr Norris, Cllr Warren and Cllr Young — indicated that they came by public transport.

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