24 January 2012: We forced Cambridgeshire to freeze bus cuts and go back to the drawing board. But after a full consultation, is the new plan any better? And what lessons can other Councils learn?
Back in July we helped a Cambridgeshire bus user mount a legal challenge to the County Council’s decision to cut all subsidised buses. The Council caved in and agreed to go back the drawing board. The original cuts were put on hold, pending a review. The results of the Council’s subsequent consultation are now out, and the new plan for bus cuts will be agreed (or not) by the Council next week.
The results of the consultation were unequivocal with 81 per cent of respondents stating they disagreed with the decision to withdraw all bus funding. 36 per cent said they would be left with no alternative means of transport and the Council concluded that the cuts would disproportionally affect disabled people, women, the elderly and young people.
The Councils revised plan for bus cuts is a little better than the original, but the changes hardly reflect the strength of feeling in the public response. They say they want to develop alternative transport provision where bus subsidies will be withdrawn, subject to full community engagement. The biggest change seems to be that as well as looking to community transport schemes to fill the gap, the council now concedes that a ‘small number of low cost socially necessary contracted services’ will continue. They are also looking to make better use of other buses, like those contracted by the Council to carry school children. Some bus routes might run commercially, if fewer buses are timetabled. However this strategy seems optimistic, seeing as other funding cuts impacting on bus firms mean the trend is towards fewer commercial buses as well.
The Council pins a huge amount of responsibility on community transport schemes that have yet to be successfuly tried and tested. The experience from the franchise pilot in Duxford and Whittlesford does not bode well. The local community, far from being the driving force behind the initiative, were concerned about the knock on impact for their existing bus services, and this lead to a less than enthusiastic uptake of the scheme. The Council thinks that the answer is to give a clearer signal to the community about which bus subsidy reductions are to be made and when. For a person who relies entirely on their bus for access to shops and services this tone of message could sound at best concerning, or at worst threatening.
Community and demand responsive transport can work really well in some places, where the local people and their needs are at the heart of the project. However it is often a regular public bus is by far the best solution. If Cambridgeshire County Council and others are serious about tailoring public transport to community needs, and are not simply going through the motions of a cost-saving exercise, local people must be actively engaged in the planning and delivery of these changes. We hope that Councils learn from the experience in Cambridgeshire and ask the questions, before posing the answers.