Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent
Sat, 6 August 2022 at 7:00 am
With rural buses in long-term decline and a funding crisis putting more routes in peril, a surprising service has appeared on the English transport menu: the No 46 bus to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.
Raymond Blanc’s celebrated restaurant and hotel in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside may not appear classic bus territory. The Michelin-starred establishment’s seven-course dinner with matching wines starts at £350 a head, rising to just over £1,000 if you want to drink the good stuff.
The last bus back to town at 1am could, however, save a couple a further £1,000 on an overnight stay – or at least prevent an argument over who is the designated driver, after washing down the Cornish lobster and new season lamb with a last glass of premier cru.
While the hotel advises that some customers do indeed get onboard, particularly if coming first by train, the bus service is primarily for staff. The hospitality sector, like many others since Brexit and Covid, has struggled to fill vacancies, and the service allows the rural business to tap into a pool of workers from the city.
Launched earlier this summer, route 46 is funded in roughly equal parts by the celebrity chef, the county council and passenger fares. Fares cost £3.50 one-way, with discounts bringing the cost down to £2 for staff who travel regularly, and the seven-day, hourly bus can be tracked online as it runs from Oxford through neighbouring villages to Le Manoir in Great Milton about 10 miles away.
The partnership has led not only to the rebranding and extension of a threadbare route to the luxury hotel, but also allowed the Go-Ahead-owned Oxford Bus Company to invest in two new low-emissions buses for the route.
A decade of cuts had cut the area’s patchy access to the city to one daily service. With Blanc’s subsidy and the council’s input, buses now run hourly. The route, which takes in the less affluent Cowley area of Oxford, and the villages of Horspath and Wheatley, which lost buses in the past decade, partly replaces a former Stagecoach route that was deemed unviable.
The funding deal should guarantee services for at least three years – and allow other rural residents access to jobs in Oxford, as well as bringing people out in the other direction to work at the hotel. Passenger numbers so far have reportedly been strong, and exceeded the bus company’s expectations.
Beyond the business case to attract staff, and the welcome addition to the communities’ connections, Blanc’s input has been driven by another pressing need. Le Manoir is intending to expand its premises significantly, and needs to reassure its village neighbours that those plans will not bring in more traffic.
A spa is planned, as well as a training academy. Sustainable transport helps it fulfil section 106 in planning applications – which details measures a developer must take to reduce their impact on the community.
In what have been desperate years for buses, every little helps. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, more than a quarter of bus services in England have vanished in the past decade and the rate of attrition has accelerated during the pandemic. From 2011 to 2019, the total mileage of bus services dropped by 10%, then by 18% in the following two years.
The fall was driven initially by the collapse in local authority funding from cash-strapped councils, which had propped up services seen as socially necessary. Oxfordshire county council was a prime example: in 2011, it spent just over £4m on supporting buses; by 2019, the budget was zero.
Paul Tuohy, the chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Local buses have seen more than a decade of funding cuts which has left many places, particularly rural areas, without a usable service.”
Commercial services have since been most at risk. After the pandemic started, emergency government funding kept many routes alive, but operators have withdrawn others. More could disappear when government recovery grants expire, after an extension of funding until September.
The pandemic fell at a cruel time for a sector that had finally persuaded the government to announce a proper national strategy and £3bn of investment by self-professed bus lover Boris Johnson. Unfortunately, the vast majority was then designated as emergency funding as revenues vanished, and regions were then made to bid against each other’s improvement plans to win the leftovers.
Oxfordshire was one of the relatively lucky regions, allocated £12.7m. Imaginative partnerships have, however, been long in place with Go-Ahead and commercial firms: its Oxford arm also piloted a demand-responsive bus service, PickMeUp, that ultimately ran out of cash. Oxford Bus Company said the 46 to Le Manoir “demonstrates what can be achieved when key stakeholders work together”.
Elsewhere, it’s been a bleaker picture – exemplified by the story earlier this year of a pensioner, Alan Williams, who stepped in with a £3,000 offer to fund the X53 route to his Bridport home, which was on course to be axed by FirstGroup. However, the 78-year-old managed to save the Sunday service after his generosity attracted huge publicity.
Campaigner Tuohy added: “Raymond Blanc obviously sees the business benefits of a good bus service, but it shouldn’t take individuals to fund what should be a public service. The government must do more to support local buses so that all communities and businesses can benefit, no matter where they are.”