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Calls for Combined Authority to stump up extra cash to keep vital Wisbech bus service running

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The future of a vital town bus service is currently hanging in the balance with discussions on how it can be kept running due to held next week.

Fenland district and county councillors together with the office of MP Steve Barclay have appealed to Cambridgeshire's mayor Dr Nik Johnson to look into potentially offering an extension to the temporary funding already being made available by the Combined Authority.

The move follows an appeal by a regular user of the Wisbech 68 Tesco bus service, who feared an end to the service would cut her independence as well as damage business for those firms along Cromwell Road, where the bus runs.

FACT runs bus 68 but is now looking for funding to keep it running.Photo: FACT. (54463003)
FACT runs bus 68 but is now looking for funding to keep it running.Photo: FACT. (54463003)

The bus user initially wrote to Councillor Sam Hoy asking for her assistance and then followed it up with a request to Mr Barclay's office.

Gary Christy, chair of Fenland Association for Community Transport (FACT), which operates the service has explained its funding history and said that originally it was funded by Section 106 money - cash paid by developers for local services - through Fenland District council and Cambridgeshire County Council.

He said: "This service has been running for many years against a set allocation of funding and is operated under a Section 22 licence as a not-for-profit public service. The original funding was due to be fully used up by around August 2020 but with some changes to the route, plus from fares received and other cost savings, it was possible to extend it to November 2021.

FACT runs bus 68 but is now looking for funding to keep it running.Photo: FACT. (54463000)
FACT runs bus 68 but is now looking for funding to keep it running.Photo: FACT. (54463000)

"The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA) then agreed to fund the service up to the end of March 2022. The concept of the using the Section 106 money was to prove the patronage of the Route 68. FACT has provided monthly statistics to both FDC and CPCA showing numbers of passengers.

"I have been told that the Route 68 funding will cease at the end of March and we have lobbied and campaigned for the service to continue, be it either by an extension of the Section 22 arrangements or it be put out for commercial tender.

"I do have a meeting with FDC and CPCA on Monday January 31 to understand what the future of the Route 68 is, but on the last meeting we had with them the news was not very encouraging.

"We would of course like to see the continuation of the Route 68 in any form, and are more than willing to continue to operate it under Section 22 not-for-profit, just have we have done very successfully for many years – it would be a great shame for the public to lose this valuable service."

Fenland council leader Councillor Chris Boden has now written to Mayor Dr Johnson asking him it there is anything that can be done in the short-term.

Cllr Boden, who is also a trustee of FACT, said: "I'm aware of course of the ambitious plans that the CPCA is considering to improve bus services in the Combined Authority area, especially serving those areas with the greatest need.

"FACT has for several years provided a bus service to Tesco supermarket in Cromwell Road allowing Wisbech residents from the most deprived lower super output areas in Cambridgeshire to access the out-of-town supermarket if they do not have their own transport.

"Whilst the current Bus Service Improvement Programme review may well identify exactly this sort of need as one which should be prioritised, it will not, as you know, produce any results on the ground until later this year at the earliest.

"Given the clear local need and the fact that current CPCA funding agreed by the previous Mayor runs out at the end of March, would you please consider extending the CPCA funding of the route 68 bus service to cover the timing gap between the existing funding running out and access to new funding and/or services becoming possible?"

Cllr Hoy added: "Although there is a bus from the town centre to the Tesco area, this bus route goes further in collecting people from many residential roads in the. The area it covers is one with a lot of elderly residents who depend on this service.

"It also has a very important stop, which is the Eye Hospital. If this service is lost it will mean that elderly people are unable to get to this important medical facility unless they get a taxi - a service which is often too costly."

Wendy Otter, Fenland's transport development manager, has confirmed that whilst use of the service was growing pre pandemic, it was still some way off being at a level where the service could be commercialised. She said the only real solution is to find funding to keep it running.

In response the appeals Mayor Dr Johnson said: "I can understand your concerns and I will of course, as a priority, ask the transport team to look into and clarify if there is a possibility of support."

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