By Sam Rkaina, Local Government Reporter
Campaigners and councillors have accused the authority of ignoring warnings that its attempt to increase bus competition in the city wouldn’t work.
Far from saving money, the failed plan to bring in rivals to First and drive down prices has left the council with a “disastrous” £2.2 million budget hole.
Dozens of supported transport services across the city are now at risk, including early morning, evening and night buses, the harbour ferry and a school bus service.
As revealed in the Evening Post last summer, former executive member for transport Gary Hopkins’ scheme was to put all of the transport services the council supports financially out to tender in one go.
But the move failed to attract more than one big company and their price was too high for the council to accept.
Due to increased fuel costs and cuts in government support for bus companies, the cost of the contracts has gone up by £1.2 million.
On top of that the council has to find £1 million of savings from the budget in the next two years.
Due to the council’s four year, £70 million cuts programme there just isn’t the money to pay for it.
So now the council is being forced to look at where it can make cuts.
This is exactly what transport campaigners said would happen when Mr Hopkins announced the plan last year.
Night buses, the Henbury yellow school bus, orbital buses, shopper services and the Easyrider could all be affected.
And some park and ride charges could increase to help plug the funding gap, that the council has just two weeks to sort out.
The Campaign For Better Transport’s Dave Redgewell believes the funding gap not only puts services at risk but also jobs of drivers and inspectors who may not longer be needed if their journeys stop running.
He said: “I hate to say this but we did see this coming.
“All of the transport groups said this was a very high risk strategy.
“The idea it was going to bring another big operator to compete with First – it doesn’t happen in Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds so why would it happen here?
“We did try to explain all this to the council, the executive member and the West of England Partnership. We never believed it from day one.
“It’s a very alarming situation. Someone has got to make some really difficult decisions about what to cut.
“I do feel sorry for Tim Kent (Mr Hopkins’ replacement) because he’s been handed a very difficult position that wasn’t of his making.
“The competition policy has failed, we must now go forward and pick up the pieces.
“Greater Bristol should never have been part of a political experiment.
“Now it’s about working together with First and Rotala in a very difficult economic climate for the benefit of passengers.”
Mr Kent met with First yesterday to begin negotiations on what should happen next, but a company spokeswoman said it was too early to comment.
Tim Jennings of the Coach Operators Federation said they were “concerned but not in the least surprised” by the shortfall.
He said: “This was predicted at the time the tenders for the subsidised services were issued due to the onerous conditions and increased standards being insisted on – particularly requiring bendy buses for both the Portway and Brislington Park and Rides for no obvious reason.
“These are much more expensive to buy and operate than the vehicles currently used and unsuitable anyway in that far more passengers would have to stand.
“Suggestions from operators to use lower cost vehicles were dismissed by the council.
“The end result is that the tenders have come in much more expensive – what a surprise.
“It is still not too late for some sanity to reappear and talk again about more cost effective operation of the services without the unnecessary frills.
“At least one of our members would probably be interested in operating the Brislington Park and Ride with no subsidy at the current fares should the council wish to consider this option.”
The Liberal Democrat run authority’s approach has been branded “a fiasco” by opposition councillors.
Labour deputy leader Mark Bradshaw said: “The Lib Dem promise made by Gary Hopkins last November to deliver cheaper bus fares in Bristol has failed miserably – instead we are faced with massive cuts to bus services and higher fares.
“Labour councillors and transport campaigners had warned that Cllr Hopkins’ rash decision to open up most of Bristol’s public transport to free market bidding by other commercial bus operators could backfire and it has.
“This bungled tendering process has been disastrous for Bristol’s bus users. The outcome was sadly predictable and also avoidable.”
A new working group to look at transport issues in Bristol is being set up as one of the conditions for the opposition parties allowing the Lib Dems to retain control of the council as a minority administration.
An emergency meeting of that group is due to take place on Tuesday.
It will be down to Mr Hopkins’ replacement Mr Kent to sort out the mess.
He has to decide which services to cut and which to save by the next cabinet meeting on June 9.
The Whitchurch has appealed to the public to contact him, to put their case for which services should be saved and which – if any – shouldn’t.
He also wants passengers to contact their local councillors to lobby him with their concerns, and to write to the Post.
Speaking to the Post, he said he accepted the council’s estimates on the amount it could save by re-tendering all the contracts at once were “optimistic”.
He said: “The council is always over optimistic and it can be a problem.
“It was sold as a big plan but the reality is a big review of services was long overdue and we were facing penalty clauses.
“There are issues here – should we be funding commercial services?
“We have a list of priorities at the council and they are at the bottom.
“Everything is on the table to be discussed.”
Are you concerned about your local bus route? If so, contact Councillor Tim Kent at firstname.lastname@example.org as soon as possible before June 9.
You can also write to the Evening Post at email@example.com or Evening Post, Temple Way, Bristol, BS99 7HL