Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Government - get on the bus out of here!

Reproduced from the current edition of Unite Landworker magazine. 

They have already been hit hard by government spending cuts and now rural bus services face further decimation in 2014.  

It was in October 2010 that the Conservative/Liberal coalition cut local council budgets by 28 per cent. This was followed by an ongoing annual reduction in spending of 7.1 per cent in local government funding until 2014. To save money, local councils slashed budgets with subsidised public transport routes taking a real pounding. 

Conservative Cambridgeshire County Council swiftly ended all of its £2.7 million funding for subsidised buses and even after a local village resident organised a successful Judicial Review this resulted in ‘only’ £1 million of the cuts being restored. 

The coalition was unconcerned about the chaos they were causing. When it was revealed that the Transport Department had a £543 million underspend in 2011-12 the money was handed back to the Treasury. Labour’s Louise Ellman, chair of the all-party Commons Transport Committee said: “This is quite extraordinary. The department got its sums wrong and bus service cuts did not need to happen.” 

As we move towards what is hopefully the final year of this rotten government things seem certain to get a lot worse for rural bus users. 

The campaign for better transport’s Save Our Buses reveals that 46 per cent of local authorities reduced support for buses in 2013. Now some are threatening to remove all financial support in 2014, especially after the recent ‘bingo’ budget significantly offered little for bus users.

North Yorkshire County Council has made £900,000 cuts – equivalent to 15 per cent of the total budget - to supported buses since 2011. There are a further £2 million cuts being made from April onwards. 100 services will be affected and whilst council leader John Weighell is correct when he says they are being imposed on the authority by the government it rather ignores the fact that he is a Tory. It is also a little rich for Carl Les, the council deputy leader, to state: “We are very conscious of the potential that these reductions have for people in very rural areas, in terms of isolation and loneliness.” 

The cuts have finished off a family business that has been running since 1925. Pennine Motor Services – which operates a fleet of 14 orange and black buses around the market town of Skipton – will cease trading in May. Company secretary Maurice Simpson, whose father, Norman, ran the firm for many decades said, “It is a very sad day but unfortunately it is no longer viable. North Yorkshire reimburses 28.4 per cent of free travel whereas Lancashire pays back 56 per cent. That is our problem. It is a disaster for our 19 drivers, seven or eight of whom have worked for us for more than 20 years.” 

In Worcestershire, the Tory-led county council proposals to axe all £3 million of its public transport subsidy produced an unprecedented 8,500 responses. The county council removed £2.5 million of subsidies in 2011 and aimed to finish all subsidies this year. This threatened 88 bus services along 43 different routes, including scores in rural areas. Public pressure has forced the Tories to find £1 million to keep subsidised buses running until September, but the future of these essential services remains uncertain.

In Oxfordshire, the county council is controlled by a minority Conservative Party administration and supported bus budgets have been maintained since 2011. A good standard of provision is now jeopardised by a review, which remains ongoing as we went to press. 

Amongst the threatened services in West Oxfordshire are those in the Witney, Woodstock and Chipping Norton area. So concerned was Unite community member Kate Pearce – who lives 15 miles from Witney in Langford - that she collected documents on 30 routes. When she discovered that 27 were likely to face having their timetables cut, Kate started up her own website – - to get people involved as “rural communities need buses, otherwise people won’t be able to access doctors surgeries or get to the shops. These services provide a lifeline to the communities that they serve.” Kate collected 500 signatures on a petition that she later presented to the county council.

Kate made links with Darran Brown, Unite convenor for over 450 members at the local Stagecoach bus depot. He has seen some of his members work lost to a not for profit community interest company, Go Ride, after Oxfordshire County Council took the 213, 214, 215 and 233 routes out of subsidy to save £188,000. 

Brown naturally wants to defend his members’ interests. But he also fears that if “Stagecoach can’t make money on these routes then how can a small company do so? Go Ride will only be running  16 seater buses, which for the majority of time will not be big enough to accommodate users, who are primarily elderly people. Once the bus is full there will an hour’s wait for the next service. I want a well maintained rural bus service. I don’t believe that will be the case going forward.”

Brown is right to be worried. Before the recent budget, 29 very high profile charities, NGO’s and trade unions, including Unite, combined in calling for urgent government action in tackling bus service cuts. The response was derogatory with Danny Alexander, the treasury chief secretary, penning just 7 sentences in reply. It was a cheap shot but one which demonstrates that the current government cares little for rural communities. It is time they got on their own bus and departed the scene. 

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