Preston bus station row reignites - 24 hours after "amicable agreement"
A boycott of Preston bus station could be back on – just 24 hours after Lancashire County Council said it had come to an “amicable agreement” with the travel firms which use the site.
But one of the city’s biggest bus operators says that the action is “without question” still the main option.
Preston Bus had previously threatened to stop running services from the facility at quieter times of the day – and scrap some less profitable routes in the city altogether.
It was in response to proposed changes to the way operators are charged for using the iconic building.
A meeting of Lancashire County Council’s cabinet on Thursday agreed a more gradual introduction of the new fees, but the final destination – an 85 pence charge every time a vehicle leaves the bus station – remains the same.
“By 2021, we will be paying 160 percent more than we are doing now – that’s £200,000 extra which we have to find,” said John Asquith, commercial manager at Preston Bus.
“If they went to the public and said council tax was going up by 160 percent, I’d like to see how they got on.
“Bus users should be encouraged and rewarded for their choice of travel, not penalised. Rather than impose those costs [on travellers] we will consider and probably implement a number of alternative solutions.”
County Councillor Keith Iddon, cabinet member for transport, said he was “very surprised” by the company’s response.
“I met with Preston Bus – and Stagecoach – to talk about these proposed fees and they agreed that 45p would be more acceptable than our original 55p proposal [during the first year].
“We’ve been in discussion with the companies for some time over this issue. A significant and fairly sudden increase would have been tough for the bus companies.
“We wanted to give them time to adjust by bringing these fees in more gradually, while making the fees fairer.”
However, Preston Bus warns that County Hall could end up paying for its decision in the long run – along with the passengers whose routes may be removed.
“If we withdraw a service, then it starts a merry-go-round – the council will come under pressure to take it on and they might have to cancel a more rural service which they’re already subsidising in order to keep one running in Preston.
Papers presented to cabinet members claim that the charges reflect the “actual cost” of running of the recently-revamped facility – and represent a fair share based on how much it is used by individual operators. The authority says that the new system does not unfairly penalise local or national companies.
But John Asquith says that the costs being claimed by the council could be reduced if the bus station was operated more efficiently – and adds that some of them should not be borne by operators in any case.
“We’d question whether staff need to be deployed at the site in the numbers they are. We accept that there is a problem with anti-social behaviour occasionally, but you need to work with the police to deal with that.
“If they want to staff to protect the station, they should employ people to look after their asset at their own cost.”
The new departure charges are due to come into force on 1st July, replacing an annual fee of £5,620 for every bay a bus company uses.
County Cllr Iddon added: “The bus stations in Accrington, Chorley and Nelson have a higher departure fee, so we needed to bring Preston in line – which will also help with the cost of running Preston Bus Station.”
Labour opposition spokesperson for public transport, Gillian Oliver, said she was disappointed that a "supposed agreement" had been imposed on the bus companies.
"This Conservative administration appears to be running down the bus station rather than building it up as a major transport hub. Every statement they make is critical of its status despite the esteem the public has for it.
"Many bus users are unwaged, elderly, young or vulnerable – people who are most sensitive to bus price rises and whose options will be further limited by them," County Cllr Oliver said.
Stagecoach – the other main operator to use Preston bus station – was contacted for comment.