Devon bus users might be surprised to learn that Devon County Council published a plan to improve local services back in 2021. The government required it to do so, as a local transport authority, in response to its new national bus strategy so it could decide which plans to fund and by how much.
The county council plan relied on the government granting it more than £100 million but it received just £14.1 million to cover a three-year period.
It revised its service improvement plan accordingly and published version two in November. It says annual updates will follow.
As part of the plan, Devon County Council set up the “Devon Bus Enhanced Partnership”, a statutory arrangement that is supposed to provide a basis for Devon’s bus service operators to work with the county council to improve services by specifying both improvement aims and the actions required to achieve them.
The partnership agreement provides for a board to oversee its implementation. It was originally envisaged that the board would operate as a county council committee and therefore comply with statutory rules on press and public access to meetings and documents.
However at its inaugural meeting on 22 November the board instead decided that its meetings would not be open to the public and would sit outside the statutory framework, with agendas and minutes published after the event.
The minutes of the following meeting, held on 19 January, were not published until 1 March.
The partnership agreement also established a bus users and stakeholders group referred to as the Bus Forum. It describes this as comprising “a wider range of bus user representatives and stakeholders with a vested interest in the local bus network” including the rail industry, local businesses, passenger representative groups and local councils.
It adds that the forum would “provide a second tier of peer review and performance consultation” and would “be able to challenge the success of deliverables” achieved through the service improvement plan, providing feedback and evaluation to the oversight board.
Meetings of the forum are also not open to the press or public. We asked Devon County Council to explain why the press and public are not allowed to attend either board or forum meetings.
It said: “There is no legal requirement for enhanced partnership board meetings to be held in public. Due to the strategic and often commercially sensitive discussion at meetings, the board decided they would not be held in public, however meeting notes would be published.”
While it is true that there is no statutory requirement that these board meetings must be held in public, the partnership agreement says that they will.
It quotes the statutory basis for local authority meetings, saying: “Meetings of the EPB [Enhanced Partnership Board] will be held as if they are meetings of a decision-making body for the purposes of the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012” and goes on to rehearse the public access provisions of those regulations.
Nor is there any justification for holding these meetings in private. Peninsula Transport, the South West’s sub-national transport body, which is also hosted by Devon County Council, is not a statutory body but nevertheless operates in line with statutory requirements on openness.
When we pressed the county council on this, it said the partnership board “is not a public forum or a council meeting - it is a meeting of key stakeholders who are working collectively to improve services”.
This is not a reason for preventing the press and public attending its meetings, while it hardly seems likely that commercial bus operators would disclose highly sensitive information in meetings which their competitors also attend.
The Peninsula Transport board encompasses a much broader cross-section of interests than the Devon Bus Enhanced Partnership board, yet sees no reasons to hold its meetings in private.
When “commercially sensitive discussion” is on the agenda it simply makes use of the statutory provisions under which press and public may be excluded from its meetings.
At least the partnership board minutes are published, which is more than can be said for the forum.
Devon County Council said: “The Bus Forum is an informal group who meet [sic] three times a year to discuss local issues relating to bus services across Devon.
“There is no legal requirement for Devon County Council to form a Bus Forum; we have not published the terms of reference or membership list, and due to the informal nature of the forum no minutes were taken or will be published.”
It is true that there is no statutory requirement to set up the forum. It is also true that the forum is a key constituent of the partnership, which is itself a statutory arrangement under the Bus Services Act 2017 and so is hardly “informal”, as the county council claims.
When we asked how anyone would know what happened at its meetings, Devon County Council said: “At no point have we said that ‘no notes’ are taken. Notes and associated actions are taken by attendees. This is not the same as minutes”.
It will be interesting to see how the forum’s chair, who sits on the board, will report to the board without an agreed summary – or minutes – of what happened at each forum meeting. Or perhaps we won’t see, as the press and public are excluded from both.
We asked Devon County Council whether it was saying there was a link between the absence of a statutory requirement to form the forum and the decision not to publish any terms of reference or membership details.
It said: “No - it is not reasonable to assume that because we have not published the terms of reference or membership list in this case that this approach applies to all other stakeholder bodies that involves [sic] Devon County Council.”
This suggests that, while the county council may not have a policy on conducting stakeholder-related activities behind closed doors, it chooses to hold such meetings this way as it sees fit, and adopts the same ad hoc approach to publishing the terms of reference and membership information for such bodies too.
Devon County Council did, however, provide a list of organisations invited to nominate forum members, although it did not explain the criteria for selecting the organisations, only saying that they were “stakeholders”, and none of its responses explain why either the board or the forum have been placed in the closed door category.
It nevertheless says on its website that it is “committed to the principles of openness and transparency, and aims to make as much information as possible available to the public”.