North Devon Public Transport Users is first and foremost a think-tank, set up to promote and contribute to reasoned and informed public debate about public transport in northern Devon.
Our founding members regard public transport as an essential element of civilised life. It meets our common need to move about. It helps to sustain our common economic and social life. For many purposes, it is more sustainable than private means of getting about. It is in principle accessible to everybody.
We recognise that two elements are involved. One involves delivery: the provision and operation of a safe and reliable public transport system. This is in the main a matter for professionals, who may be from the public or the private sector, or from a combination of both. The other is the determination of its shape and nature: what is provided, where, when, to what level and how it is paid for.
We appreciate that both market forces and public intervention have always played parts in the latter. More particularly, we are aware that public bodies, at both national and local level, and to varying degrees, endeavour to shape and regulate provision in what is deemed to be the public interest. In so far as these bodies are in principle accountable to the public, we see this as entirely desirable. Further, given that national and local government subsidies play a major role in sustaining provision, we regard this involvement as essential.
At local levels in particular, we see merit in this arrangement, for, in principle at least, it allows for democratic oversight of a major public facility. In practice, however, we note critical weaknesses. It puts power into the hands of local government officers who, for all their expertise, might or might not be in touch with local needs. It places particular reliance on elected members, who might or might not have a significant interest in this facet of public life, and who anyway have a wide range of calls on their attention.
This has a number of consequences, all unfortunate. Elected members, perhaps aware of their lack of expertise, readily hand responsibility for public transport matters to sub-groupings of their assemblies and to council officers. These sub-groupings, in their turn, espouse the programmes of voluntary pressure groups, who may or may not be driven by parochial or other interests. At the same time, they can attach particular weight to the wishes of ad hoc bodies set up to articulate the concerns of particular sectors of the local economy, such as tourism, rather than the needs of the population as a whole.
Meanwhile, few opportunities are afforded to the wider public to involve themselves in the deliberations. In such circumstances, debate is unchallenging and decision-making peremptory. Above all, members of the public, who have a direct or indirect interest in public transport provision, can feel excluded.
It is in response to this that North Devon Public Transport Users claims a constructive and potentially useful role. It involves a number of concurrent activities. Among them are:
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