The future of Brighton and Hove’s subsidised bus services is expected to be decided this afternoon (Thursday 12 July).
The Policy and Resources Committee of Brighton and Hove City Council is due to discuss the contracts in a closed session at Hove Town Hall.
Roger French, the managing director of Brighton and Hove Buses, is believed to have offered to run some of the services.
And the council is expected to make some concessions too. But part of all of three routes are thought to be still at risk
- the number 52 between Ovingdean and the centre of Brighton
- the number 75 between Lower Bevendean and Patcham
- the number 81 between Goldstone Valley in Hove and the Open Market in Brighton
Council leader Jason Kitcat said: “There has been, understandably, some controversy since the council proceeded with a reduction in bus subsidies.
“This was a reduction agreed at budget council which we have now had to implement at a recent Policy and Resources Committee meeting.
“The impact was exacerbated by a government cut in the bus operator subsidy as well as increasing fuel costs.”
Councillor Kitcat added: “We have proceeded with the smallest reduction in subsidies we’ve been able to identify compared to any other council, affecting less than 0.33 per cent of bus passenger journeys in the city.”
Labour said that it welcomed the reviving of axed school bus routes but said that the Greens had not gone far enough.
Last week the opposition Labour group leader Councillor Gill Mitchell and transport spokesman Councillor Alan Robins held a meeting with the bus operator in order to discuss bringing back axed bus services.
It said that a deal was struck for the bus company to bear the risk of running the number 21, 22, 24 and 27 buses.
Under the deal the council would fund the number 52, 74, 75, 81 and 96 buses.
Labour accused Councillor Kitcat of agreeing to retain only the 74 and 96 routes.
Councillor Mitchell said: “The continuation of the school bus services is a victory for common sense and we heartily welcome it but this simply does not go far enough.
“Our recent meeting with the local bus operator ended with an offer from them to continue to run the majority of the threatened services and I immediately called on Councillor Kitcat to fund the remainder that included the school services and number 52 and 81 services.
“The number 52 is the only bus serving Ovingdean that goes straight to the city centre.
“For Councillor Kitcat to say that he will not fund it as he wants to stop it from entering North Street makes no sense.
“A low-emission bus running one an hour will be less polluting than Ovingdean residents taking to their cars.”
The council had hoped to save about £230,000 a year under a new contract which is due to start in September.
Mr French has kept a relatively low profile during the debate but the subsidised routes in total are worth more than £900,000 a year jointly to his company and Compass Travel.
He joined London Transport at 16 years old. And while he was at Reading University he kept up his holiday job on the buses.
“It was my ultimate ambition to be a bus conductor,” he said, “and it was achieved so young.”
After university he joined the National Bus Company’s management training scheme. It meant moving on every few years.
He arrived in Brighton and Hove in 1982 and just as he might have expected another posting, the buses were privatised.
“I missed the bus,” he said. “If I’d moved on after two years, maybe it would have been a different story.”
Instead, it wasn’t long before he became managing director of Brighton and Hove Buses – the conductor on a bigger stage.
His journey has won plaudits locally and nationally, with a succession of government ministers queuing up to praise him. And last year he picked up a lifetime achievement award at the bus industry Oscars.
The citation said: “He is an active participant in the community, being involved in many committees, forums and partnerships including chairman of the city’s local Strategic Partnership, the Brighton and Hove Business Forum, the Hove Business Partnership and the Martlets Hospice.
“He was awarded an OBE for services to public transport in 2005, an honorary MA by the University of Brighton in 2007 and became Deputy Lord Lieutenant for East Sussex in 2007.
“His book ‘Pride and Joy – My amazing 25-year journey with Brighton and Hove Buses’ was published in June 2010 and sold more than 1,500 copies in three months with all sales income being donated to charity.”
Mr French, 58, has proved to be an able communicator with a keen eye for publicity.
His best-known campaign has probably been “I’m on the bus” which featured huge photos of passengers with their reasons for going by bus.
He leads from the front and there can be few towns or cities where the bus company boss is so well known.
When the council recently carried out a consultation about proposed changes to the area in front of Brighton railway station, Mr French aired his concerns.
He was worried that the Brighton Station Gateway scheme would make it harder for the present number of buses to serve the station.
And he was keen for passengers to have the shortest walk possible between buses and trains and vice versa, not least those with luggage or those caught in the rain.
Hundreds of people responded to the consultation. A report discussed by the council’s Transport Commitee on Tuesday (10 July) suggested that many of them may have swayed by Mr French speaking out, possibly skewing the results. But revised proposals will now be considered.
And when the council proposed reducing the budget for subsidised services, the Greens took flak for voting to cut a number of routes.
Their political opponents said that the party made much of sustainable living but was forcing people to switch from public transport to private cars.
Some Labour councillors sought out Mr French to try to find a solution. After the meeting this afternoon it will become clearer whether the compromises have won support.
Whichever way the vote goes, Mr French will keep working with those from all parties and none.
He has attracted money from the government which the council will put towards the cost of proposed changes in Lewes Road.
It is one of the few places where he faces genuine competition, from the Big Lemon, which has ties with the Greens.
Mr French has a genuine understated charm but, just as his staff know that he’s an exacting taskmaster, he also fights on behalf of passengers with great effectiveness.
His reaction to problems with the state of North Street recently led to a quick agreement to sort out the road.
At the same time he has agreed to move much of his fleet from the historic Conway Street depot to Hollingbury.
This will enable a sizeable regeneration of a rundown area of Hove which has been long overdue.
The move is in prospect just as smart cards are taking off. Mr French is, he said, still excited by the journey ahead.