Could free public transport rescue Norwich city centre?

First bus in Norwich city centre. Photo: Steve Adams

First bus in Norwich city centre. Photo: Steve Adams - Credit: Archant

Could free public transport be the driving force to getting people back into the city centre in a post-Covid world?  

That is the suggestion of Paul Burall of the Norwich Society, a group that strives to preserve and improve the city’s unique character and fights to minimise greenhouse emissions.  

Mr Burall believes making public transport free would be good for people and businesses. 

“This is not just a pipe dream: cities ranging from Tallin in Estonia and the whole of Luxembourg no longer charge for public transport,” he said. 

Instead of being paid for directly by the public, Mr Burall suggests a combination of businesses – who would have the benefit of more people in the city centre to use their services – and politicians seeking to clean up the air would foot the bill. 

Mr Burall, who accepts his ideas are controversial, argues this provides people from poorer areas better access to city centre facilities and job opportunities.  

But the response from the business community and county council has been mixed with many accepting that discussions around transport are needed but free travel might not be feasible. 

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A spokesman for Aviva, one of Norwich’s biggest employers, expressed an interest in Mr Burall’s idea. 

He said: “Aviva is always looking at ways to reduce the impact on the environment of our people travelling to work – facilitating more working from home is an example of this.  

“We would be interested in hearing more about this idea.” 

Aviva in Norwich. Pic: Archant

Aviva expressed interest in Mr Burall's idea - Credit: Archant

Andrew Mower of the Federation of Small Businesses accepts that transportation is an issue but said businesses are already experiencing huge difficulties.  

“An efficient and reasonably priced transport system is vital to Norwich’s future success and free public transport would be great for visitors,” he said.  

“But in the current climate asking local businesses to stump up the cash would also be a huge added burden. 

“A smarter approach to parking charges would be beneficial for firms on the high street. That could include encouraging the use of greener vehicles by offering them free parking. 

“Transport is certainly an issue, but it’s only one part of a much bigger challenge for the city centre and the council needs a strategy that takes a more holistic view.” 

Norfolk County Council’s cabinet member for transport,  Councillor Martin Wilby, believes the necessary funding would far outweigh what businesses are willing to contribute.  

Martin Wilby, chairman of the A47 Alliance at the reception at Westminster to lobby for the dualling

Cllr Martin Wilby did not believe it would receive the necessary support to make it viable - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

He said: “It’s not for me to comment on what the business community should invest in but I believe the provision of free public transport would require funding that would substantially exceed any support that could be offered, in times of prosperity, never mind whilst grappling with the effects of the pandemic. 

“Likewise, for local authority’s, budgets are under more pressure than ever and local funding simply isn’t available not to mention the large-scale changes in regulation which would also be required to make this proposal a reality.” 

Stefan Gurney of Norwich Business Improvement District was perhaps most damning of the suggestion saying it was easy to come up with ideas but harder to put them into practice. 

Mr Gurney believes many councils will see reduced budgets while the government tries to claw back funds spent on the Covid response.  

He added: “The business community, unfortunately, is already struggling with the costs day today.

“Many may not be making it through. 

“This would be a long term aspiration and I would expect many businesses to struggle for the next five years. 

“I think increasing public transport is the goal for most local authorities going forward.  

“Post-Covid there is definitely a discussion to be had about how people want to use public transport but I’m not sure that free is commercially viable."