Rural bus services are in crisis throughout Britain. Public sector austerity cuts have resulted in local authorities reducing support for rural bus networks. The insanely unfair system of reimbursement for English National Concessionary Travel (ENCT) senior passes discriminates against rural bus operations, on which up to 80 per cent of passengers can be passholders. Bus routes are being slashed and small bus operators going out of business at an alarming rate. The Government blames local authorities and local authorities blame Government, but it is the rural poor and households without cars who suffer.
When even larger, responsible operators who cross-subsidise many of their rural routes from their more lucrative urban and inter-urban parts of the network have to slash services, alarms bells ring. This summer in Nidderdale, North Yorkshire even the popular service 24 between Harrogate and Pateley Bridge, a small town in the heart of Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, has faced major cutbacks. Operators Harrogate Bus, part of the Transdev group, suffering cut-throat, unregulated competition from a rival operator cherry picking its more lucrative urban routes, was forced to announce the withdrawal of the Sunday service. Though ostensibly only for the winter period – in fact most of the year from October until May - it was clear once withdrawn in winter it would never be economic in summer.
Without the Sunday service, more passengers would desert the service and soon the whole 24 route would be in jeopardy.
When Nidderdale Chamber of Trade and Nidderdale Plus, a community regeneration charity, called a meeting to discuss the cuts, members of North & West Yorkshire Campaign for Better Transport (NWYCfBT) were invited along. Several NWYCfBT members are also volunteers with the Dales & Bowland Community Interest Company (D&BCIC) – a social enterprise that now manages DalesBus, the Sunday recreational bus network in the Yorkshire Dales. They suggested that D&BCIC should work with the local community to raise sufficient cash to operate the Sunday 24 as part of DalesBus. Working with the operators it proved possible to cut one of the four return journeys per day by running later out of Harrogate and returning sooner, but at times more practical for visitors, with better connection with buses to and from Leeds, Bradford and Wetherby. An informal working group was set up to source grants, and donations and through Crowd Funding.
Even this initial effort only raised sufficient funds to keep the service for a few months. But then through the Chamber of Trade, a much larger, nationally known sponsor was found. Harrogate Spring Water have their spring and bottling plant on the outskirts of Harrogate. Their Managing Director not only lives along the route, but regularly uses the Sunday 24 with his family to go walking. By offering a grant from their Community Fund, the company have guaranteed the life of the Sunday service for two years.
D&BCIC are now marketing the service in nearby Leeds and Bradford showing connections and through tickets to Nidderdale, and the DalesBus Ramblers are organising fortnightly public walks from the Sunday 24. Harrogate Spring Water are also providing marketing help through their website and social media - with ideas such as “Pubs and Dogs” walks, discounts at local shops and “combi-deals” at local pubs, stressing the value of the 24 for linear walks along the valley. Local groups are planning days out for people with disabilities or dementia using the “Bus Buddy” concept.
The aim is get local ownership of the service so that both the Sunday and the weekday service can be profitable and self-sustaining.
These are early days, but the first couple of weeks of operation, have already passed our initial passenger targets. And the whole community now knows they need their bus service.
Colin Speakman, Chairman, Campaign for Better Transport North & West Yorkshire Group