BUS CUTS

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COMMUNITIES across Fenland could find themselves without public transport if subsidies for rural bus services are axed.

Cambs County Council has announced plans to cut 100 per cent or £2.7 million in bus subsidies as part of swingeing cost-cutting measures, which could also see 100s of jobs lost at the authority.

Counties nationwide are planning to cut bus subsidies but the Campaign for Better Transport claims Cambridgeshire is making the biggest cut of any.

Many people living in places like Manea or Wisbech St Mary could find themselves isolated if the cuts go ahead and campaigners fighting the proposed cutbacks claim it is the vulnerable who will be hit hardest - the young, the elderly, the disabled and the poor.

Andy Campbell, managing director for Stage Coach East, whose firm operates many of the subsidised routes, said they were deeply concerned about the proposals.

He said the situation was made worse by the announcement that the concessionary reimbursement was also being cut - that is the money bus companies receive for things like free bus passes.

Mr Campbell said there was no doubt some villages would be left without services, because those routes are not commercially viable to operate without the subsidy.

However, he said until the full picture was known it was difficult to say just how services would be affected.

Routes expected to be affected include Stagecoach’s: X9 Chatteris - March - March X9 Ely - Chatteris- Neale-Wade School route; March Town Service 33, 34, 35 routes, Neale-Wade School, March to Wisbech X9 route; W & M Travel’s Wisbech to Peterborough 390 service; Norfolk Green’s Wisbech - Wisbech St Mary - March 46 route.

Mr Campbell was among those who attended a transport summit held in March on Thursday to discuss a public transport strategy for the future.

The ground-breaking summit called by the county council was attended by representatives of around 50 organisations and was hailed a success.

The aim was to come up with ways of providing transport to fill the void left by the cuts using community based schemes such as dial-a-ride, car sharing, pool vehicles and community transport.

There were frank discussions about the issues and agreement that a core group be set up to bring forward initiatives and better ways of working.

Cambridgeshire County Councillor Mac McGuire, said: “With budgets being squeezed in all public services and no money from Government for running subsidised bus services we need to work together to see how we can best serve our communities. Initiatives such as community transport, like Dial-A-Ride, will play a vital role in this. I was pleased to hear frank discussions and even more pleased to see a large number of people volunteer to take this process forward. It is time to roll up our sleeves and put politics aside so that we can deliver what is best for Cambridgeshire and our communities, with the limited funds we have.”

Fenland Council Leader Alan Melton said cutting bus subsidies was not a case of attacking the vulnerable, but agreed it could have an affect on rural communities.

However, he said there was a need to look at public transport as a whole and to try to provide a more integrated public transport service.

He also pointed out that bus companies need to look at the services they provide to ensure they run buses that are used.

“When I used to help with the Christmas lights in Chatteris we would often comment on the number of empty buses we saw going through the town,” said Mr Melton.

March pensioner Via Batterham, who was among campaigners who fought to keep March Town bus service running two years’ ago, fears the proposed cuts will hit the town’s older people who rely on it to get to the shops and to doctor’s appointments.

“The buses are well used by older people, how are we going to get about if these services are cut,” said Mrs Batterham.

It is not a statutory requirement for councils to subsidise public transport but Andrew Osborne from Cambridgeshire against the cuts said: “Cambridgeshire is a rural county with very little transportation infrastructure, the rural bus routes are vital to ensure the rural population can access the facilities and services only available in the county’s major cities and towns. Cuts to these bus routes will affect the poor, the unemployed and pensioners.”

Tom Woodcock, Secretary of Cambridge Trades Council said: “With the cuts proposed by the county council on top of things like the conservative government’s closure of the Wisbech Magistrates court, it’s clear that this will be a tough time for people in the rural parts of Cambridgeshire. I urge as many people as possible to attend the protest march we will be holding in Cambridge on Saturday February 12 and the lobby of the county council on the February 15 to ensure the councillors know the strength of feeling in opposition to their plans.”