BUS operators are holding civic chiefs to ‘ransom’ as a battle to restore key transport links in Portsmouth rages on, a council leader has said
Portsmouth City Council boss Gerald Vernon-Jackson has spoken of his frustration at operator First after it pulled the plug on routes in parts Old Portsmouth, Southsea and Tipner earlier this year.
However the company has denied his claims.
Since June the council has been fighting to restore bus services to the areas affected.
However, this week Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan ramped up the pressure for a deal to be struck, claiming residents were sick of delays.
Cllr Vernon-Jackson claimed First was demanding at least £150,000 a year to subsidise loss-making routes in the city.
The Lib Dem chief refused to pump that level sort of cash back into the bus firm, in a situation he said was ‘driving him up the wall’.
‘The thing we could do is write a large cheque but it’s identifying where this money would come from,’ he said. ‘That £150,000 could come from social services which is looking after the city’s most vulnerable children.We can’t do that.
‘The logical thing to do is for the city council to set up its own bus company to act as competition but unfortunately the law does not allow that to happen.’
He felt the cash would be used to prop up the business which he said was ‘facing financial problems’ from Greyhound, the US operator which is part of the FirstGroup, which runs the city’s main bus services.
Cllr Vernon-Jackson added: ‘We will continue to talk to the bus company but they are holding us to ransom.’
Councillor Lynne Stagg, the city’s highways boss, said the authority was doing ‘everything it could’ to secure additional bus routes but that it was in a ‘catch 22’ situation.
‘The problem we have here is that not enough people are using the buses - that is something we have desperately got to change and we are working incredibly hard on this,’ she said.
The senior Lib Dem councillor said the authority was in the process of striking a deal with operator First Buses to restore some of the city’s off-peak services.
And although unable to confirm the exact figure of the deal, Cllr Stagg did say the cost to the council was ‘significantly less’ than the £150,000 quoted for the full restoration.
It is expected two new off-peak weekday shuttle services could be introduced into the city as early as next month, running between Tipner and St Mary’s Hospital, via North End.
The number 13 bus is also expected to be restored on a Saturday, operating on a reduced timetable.
Cllr Stagg added: ‘Buses are even more critical today than they have ever been because of the air quality problem the city has got.
‘We have to have better bus services and people have go to use them instead of their cars.’
Concerns have since prompted a meeting between Mr Morgan and Marc Reddy, managing director of First Bus.
The Labour MP said: ‘These changes could have a significant impact on social isolation and the accessibility of local services for our elderly in Portsmouth’s communities.
‘The administration needs to catch up and get round the table with Mr Reddy to find a practical solution. At best the services should be reinstated or a new service introduced.’
Marc Reddy, managing director for FirstBus in Hampshire, Dorset & Berkshire, said: ‘I am surprised about the comments from the leader of Portsmouth City Council as he has not approached me or my team or discussed any element of our bus service in Portsmouth. It is totally wrong to suggest that we are holding the city council to ransom. Far from it in fact, as we have agreed to operate some elements of new services (starting in January) without any financial support as part of partnership working with the city council. The city council was informed of our changes in June and in turn would have been considering whether to financial support these loss-making services.’
Mr Reddy added: ‘From January it is good news for bus users as we will be operating a new off peak service between the Hard Interchange, Old Portsmouth and Southsea and also between Tipner and St Mary's Hospital.
‘These off-peak services were procured under a competitive tendering process, and where I believe we were the cheapest operator and provided best value for money to the city council. We must not forget that these services were attracting, and carrying, very few people in the Old Portsmouth and Tipner areas, hence why it was no longer sustainable to operate in those areas without any financial support.
‘The vast majority of bus services in the City of Portsmouth are provided on a commercial basis, without any direct financial support, and the number of people using the bus services in Portsmouth is growing on some key corridors.
‘The key challenge we face is the continual increase in traffic congestion and in turn slowing buses down, which ultimately increases costs. However, Portsmouth CC and Hampshire CC have been shortlisted to be awarded several ten of millions (maybe even hundreds of millions) of pounds from Department for Transport's Transforming Cities Fund, this will help in delivering some bold changes in the area to give buses greater priority getting around.’