PLANS to upgrade Somerset’s bus network have hit a snag over the government provided less than one-tenth of the required funding.

Somerset County Council put together a bus service improvements plan (BSIP) following a request from the Department for Transport (DfT) under the government’s ‘bus back better’ initiative.

The council submitted a request to the government for £163m, with the plan formally taking effect on April 1 and the improvements being phased in over a ten-year period.

But the DfT has only provided £11.9m of funding for Somerset out of a £7bn pot – just over seven per cent of what officers estimated would be needed.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps MP stated on Monday (April 4) that the funding would help to correct the historic imbalance of transport funding in favour of London and the south east.

He said: “Buses are the most popular way of getting around in this country – but for too long people outside of London have had a raw deal.

“The investment we’re making today to ramp up the bus revolution will drive down fares at a time when people’s finances are tight and help connect communities across England.”

Somerset’s allocation of £11.9m compares poorly to three of its close neighbours, with Devon receiving £14.1m, Cornwall pocketing £23.5m  and the wider West of England and North Somerset receiving a whopping £105.5m.

A council spokesman said: “11 million pounds falls well short of our aspiration to transform bus services in the county, but we have always known that it will require a sustained campaign and not just a single funding round to achieve the ambitions we outlined in the Somerset BSIP.

“We’ll work closely with the DfT to wisely target the funding we have received and to make the case for more.

“It is likely that a county deal, much more likely after the new unitary Somerset Council comes into being, will give us the next opportunity to deliver the vision for bus services that the county deserves.”

Seven key measures were included within the BSIP to improve Somerset’s bus services and drive up passenger numbers across the county:

  • Electrifying the Taunton park and ride to reduce emissions
  • More frequent services across the day, including a minimum hourly core network by 2023 with guaranteed services from 7am to 7pm and a “last bus time” on key, strategic routes
  • Improvements to the M5 corridor to reflect the housing growth and employment opportunities in Bridgwater, Taunton and Wellington
  • Extension of services into rural areas, including more demand-responsive transport (DRT) in the evenings and at weekends
  • Lower-priced, easy-to-understand tickets, which can be used on services run by multiple different operators – along with contactless payment and “flat fare town zones” in Bridgwater, Taunton and Yeovil
  • Improvements to existing bus stations in Bridgwater, Wells and Yeovil, and work with partners to create a new facility in Taunton
  • Tighter planning regulations to ensure buses can serve new residential developments, with financial contributions being secured from house-builders

The Somerset Bus Partnership, which campaigns for more frequent and better-funded bus services across the county, has expressed its disappointment at the government’s announcement – with co-chairman Peter Travis describing it as “a slap in the face for the county and its bus passengers”.

He added: “Only those who believe a glass that’s seven per cent full is better than a glass that’s 93 per cent empty can possibly welcome this news.

“Somerset has the lowest-rated bus services in England and the second-lowest bus journey per head – and yet transport accounts for nearly half of all our county’s carbon emissions.

“If any local transport authority deserved a generous award to improve its bus services, it is Somerset.”

Written by Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter