Thursday, 15 March 2012

Minister Criticised at Bristol Bus Improvements Launch

He was meant to be coming to Bristol to signal the completion of a £79m project to revolutionise bus transport in the city. Instead, he found himself walking straight into some difficult questions about spending cuts.

Transport Minister Norman Baker MP was in Bristol today to help launch a major project which has provided new bus priority lanes, 120 new buses and almost 1,000 new and improved bus stops, many with electronic information displays. The scheme is intended to reduce congestion and improve services for commuters and shoppers.

His department had stumped up almost half the cash with local councils providing the rest, and he might have thought that today's little photo opportunity would be a good chance to show off something positive which the coalition government was doing.

But almost from the start he was having to fend off criticism that his government's cuts were pushing up prices. To be fair, his timing wasn't brilliant.

Next month, the cost which bus companies pay for their fuel will increase dramatically, principally because the government is cutting the Bus Service Operators Grant. The practical effect of that, reckons Justin Davies, regional managing director of First Bus (South West and Wales), is that their fuel costs will rise by 27% effectively overnight.

“We have to be able to recover an element of that price rise in the prices we charge,” he said, acknowledging that fares will inevitably rise.

"We have all seen the price of petrol and diesel going up at the pumps, all we are doing is reflecting those price changes. It's an economic commodity fuel, we have to pay as much as everybody else."

Mr Baker defence sounded familiar. His government, he said, had inherited "a very difficult economic situation from the previous administration", something which government ministers seem to announce frequently and with great regularity. It may be true, but it's beginning to sound lame and a little desperate.

He also said that they'd given 18 months notice of the bus service operators' grant being reduced which he reckoned, rather bizarrely, was sufficient notice to enable bus operators to incorporate the grant cut 'without putting up fares or cutting services'.

Quite how a bus company is meant to absorb a 27% increase in fuel costs without either putting up fares or reducing services wasn't outlined by Mr Baker – but I reckon most bus companies would absolutely love to know the answer to that one.

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