Today, 12 December 2013, is the closing date for all comments from the public to be submitted to Norfolk County Council for consideration under the current Coasthopper consultation.
Here are the comments submitted by David Marshall, Chartered Town Planner’s comments sent to Norfolk County Council on 11 December 2013 re the current Coasthopper consultation
“I am responding to Norfolk County Council’s consultation on the future of the Coasthopper bus service as a regular visitor and as someone with a professional interest in transport. I am a Chartered Town Planner by professional training but have tended to specialise in transport and have worked in local authorities, big firm consultancy, part time academia and most recently running my own consultancy.
I spend around 3 to 4 weeks a year in North Norfolk, usually staying in Heacham, and the ability to leave the car at my accommodation and explore the area by bus is a significant factor in my repeated visits. Traveling by bus enables me to see and enjoy the beautiful coastline much more than if I were driving and allows me the freedom to walk sections of the coastal path and appreciate the natural beauty of the coast in a way that I couldn’t by car.
When I used to visit Norfolk in the early 1980s there were no bus services at all along the coast road and Wells only had one return trip per day to Fakenham and Norwich. I’ve followed the progress of the development of the Coasthopper from the initial service funded from the old Norfolk Coastal Project. This was an hourly service operated with some quite old Mercedes high floor minibuses. It really has been a success story in terms of its social, economic and environmental benefits and I’ve used it as a case study of good practice in my lectures at Newcastle University and in various conference presentations from time to time.
The successes of the service include the following:
- Reducing car traffic on the A149;
- Contributing to tourism along the North Norfolk coast;
- Contributing to sustainable tourism, particularly enabling people to walk the coastal path;
- Contributing to the vitality and viability of local businesses along the coast;
- Contributing to communities along the coast;
- Contributing to the equalities agenda through providing transport for older people and accessible transport for people with disabilities.
Not all of the above are easily quantifiable or can be valued in monetary terms making a full cost/benefit analysis of the service difficult to undertake. The patronage figures mask the human stories like the elderly lady from Wells who travels to Sheringham and back ‘for some company’ or the family from Stiffkey who use it for their shopping trips. There are probably as many such stories as there are people using the service.
My understanding is that ridership has risen year on year since 2000. By 2005 it had reached 100,000 per year rising to 275,000 two years later in 2007 and is now around 500,000. This represents phenomenal growth especially considering bus use is falling nationally. Certain journeys, such as the first one out of Hunstanton after 09:30, are regularly ‘standing room only’ or even leave people behind.
I suspect the patronage on the Coasthopper has reached the point where the summer service could be operated commercially now and Norfolk Green confirm this in their own pamphlets on the proposed cuts. The paper provided by NCC for the recent consultation meetings confirms that they are looking to reduce the subsidy to virtually zero over the next two years. From the point of view of public funding, getting as much of the service operated as a free standing commercial venture is the ideal. The big question is getting as much value as possible out of every public £ put into it.
The figures provided by NCC are interesting as they highlight the fact that a lot of non-Norfolk residents use the service. This need not be a bad thing as those visitors are spending money with local businesses and contributing to the local economy. Unfortunately a lot of them are concessionary permit holders and the reimbursement from central government doesn’t quite cover the costs. Perhaps one way to overcome this would be to introduce a nominal boarding charge for non-Norfolk concessionary permit holders. Assuming 30% of passengers are in this category and 500,000 pax pa this would raise around £150k pa.
The other area where the service is loss making is the winter service when loadings are significantly lower but higher proportions of passengers are Norfolk residents. The demographics of North Norfolk mean that there are a higher proportion of older residents and with age there is a much higher incidence of ill health and disability. The Coasthopper provides a lifeline to older people in these circumstances.
Given this, other sources of funding could be sought. One area worthy of consideration is through developer contributions from planning gain agreements. There are a number of renewable energy and offshore wind farm proposals affecting the Norfolk coast and there may be some scope for this to support the Coasthopper or any replacement service. As an example, Statoil, the developer of the Sheringham Shoal windfarm are providing £100k pa to support community projects in the area. Some of that money is ring fenced to community projects which may preclude Norfolk Green from receiving it but could be subject to a partnership with a third sector partner.
The use of new or existing community transport projects or social enterprises should be considered in proposals for ‘backfilling’ or any part replacement service. There is an established community transport operator in the area, King’s Lynn based West Norfolk Community Transport which already undertakes contract work.
From what I know of Norfolk Green, the Coasthopper is a core part of their business and they have invested heavily not only in vehicles but in their staff and developing the customer base. They don’t strike me as a ‘fly by night’ operator who would walk away if the subsidy were withdrawn completely. From the data provided by Norfolk County Council, I would expect that a significant part of the Coasthopper service could be provided commercially, particularly in the summer season. The precise detail of that is probably commercially confidential but I would expect that it forms the basis of negotiations between the operator and the County Council going forward.
In conclusion, I feel that the Coasthopper is a success story that has contributed significantly to the economy, communities and environment of North Norfolk over the past 10 years or so. I trust that all concerned can work together to ensure its future.”