Raymond Blanc finances the local bus to the restaurant

With rural buses in long-term decline and a funding crisis putting several routes at risk, a surprising service has appeared on the English transport menu: bus No. 46 to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.

Raymond Blanc’s famous restaurant and hotel in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside might not appear as classic coach territory. The Michelin-starred establishment’s seven-course dinner with matching wines starts at £350 per head, rising to just over £1,000 if you want to drink the good stuff.

Related: Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant group reports £12m in pandemic losses

However, the last bus back into town at 1am could save a couple another £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’s lamb with one last. glass of premier cru.

Although the hotel advises that some customers will actually board, especially if they arrive first by train, the bus service is primarily for employees. The hospitality sector, like many others since Brexit and Covid, has struggled to fill vacancies and the service enables rural businesses to tap into a pool of workers from the city.

Route 46 was launched earlier this summer and is financed in roughly equal parts by the celebrity chef, the county council and passenger prices. 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 travels from Oxford through neighboring villages to Le Manoir in Great Milton approx. 10 miles away.

Blanc outside his restaurant

Raymond Blanc outside his restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton. Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

The partnership has not only led to the rebranding and extension of a tired route to the luxury hotel, but also allowed the Go-Ahead-owned Oxford Bus Company to invest in two new low-emission buses for the route.

A decade of cuts had reduced the area’s disjointed access to the city to one daily service. With Blanc’s grant and the municipality’s input, buses now run every hour. The route, which takes in the less affluent Cowley area of ​​Oxford and the villages of Horspath and Wheatley, which lost buses in the last decade, partly replaces a former Stagecoach route which was deemed unviable.

The funding deal will guarantee services for at least three years – giving other rural residents access to jobs in Oxford, as well as bringing people 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 for attracting staff, and the welcome addition to local community connections, Blanc’s input has been driven by another pressing need. Le Manoir intends to expand its premises significantly and needs to reassure the village’s neighbors that these plans will not bring in more traffic.

A spa is planned, as well as a training academy. Sustainable transport helps it meet Section 106 in planning applications – which sets out measures a developer must take to reduce their impact on the community.

In what have been desperate years for buses, every little bit helps. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, more than a quarter of bus services in England have disappeared in the past decade, and the rate of attrition has accelerated during the pandemic. From 2011 to 2019, the total mileage of bus services fell by 10%, then by 18% in the next two years.

The fall was initially driven by the collapse in local authority funding from cash-strapped councils, which had been propping up services that were seen as socially necessary. Oxfordshire County Council was a good example: in 2011 it spent just over £4m supporting buses; in 2019 the budget was zero.

Paul Tuohy, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Local buses have seen more than a decade of funding cuts which have left many places, particularly rural areas, without a viable service.”

Commercial services have since been most exposed. After the pandemic started, emergency government support kept many routes alive, but operators have pulled others. More may disappear when state extraction grants expire, following the extension of funding until September.

The pandemic came at a dire time for a sector which had finally persuaded the government to announce a proper national strategy and £3bn of investment from self-proclaimed bus lover Boris Johnson. Unfortunately, the vast majority was then designated as emergency funding as revenue disappeared, and regions were then forced to bid against each other’s improvement plans to win the remainder.

Oxfordshire was one of the relatively lucky regions, awarded £12.7 million. However, imaginative partnerships have long been in place with Go-Ahead and commercial firms: the Oxford arm also piloted a demand-responsive bus service, PickMeUp, which eventually ran out of money. Oxford Bus Company said the 46 to Le Manoir “demonstrates what can be achieved when key stakeholders work together”.

Elsewhere, it has been a bleak 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 due to be discontinued by FirstGroup. However, the 78-year-old managed to save the Sunday service after his generosity attracted widespread attention.

Campaigner Tuohy added: “Raymond Blanc obviously sees the business benefits of a good bus service, but it should not require 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, wherever they are.”

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