Reduced bus services a threat to Alston’s“vitality and viability”

Date: Thursday 14th June 2007

MORE than 100 people attended a neighbourhood forum meeting in Alston on Wednesday to vent their frustration about bus cuts planned by Cumbria County Council.

The meeting, chaired by county councillor Isa Henderson and attended by Graham Whiteley, Cumbria County Council passenger transport officer, was aimed at explaining the context used for making changes to Alston Moor bus services, including the popular Tuesday 889 to Hexham.

Cuts to the services were due to take place in September, but Mr. Whiteley told the meeting that the changes, based on new transport criteria, would now not be implemented until April.

He said that most of the changes set out in the paper which went to members of the county council’s area committee for Eden last month would still happen in April, but there were “certain routes and services” that were deemed to be so important to people’s way of life that the county council now hoped they would continue. These included the Tuesday shopping service from Alston to Hexham and the Wednesday shopping service from Appleby to Kendal.

Richard Turner said: “This community is facing a serious threat to its vitality and viability. The county council has had cold feet and put it off, but it has only put it off.”

Mr. Whiteley said that for bus services to be viable they had to be used by the community.

Delaying the changes until April would give people time to adjust their lifestyle. Increased use of the buses would increase the chance of them being retained. “We constantly face raised expectations of the public,” said Mr. Whiteley.

He added that the council previously looked at worst performing services and scrapped them. However, that “ad hoc” approach was not considered to be sustainable so new criteria had been drawn up. That criteria, which had been used as the basis for the proposed bus cuts, was agreed by the county council’s cabinet and had twice been through the scrutiny procedure.

Mr. Whiteley said the criteria was an attempt at trying to “square up a very difficult circle”. Because of the size of Cumbria a transport strategy had to be put in place for an area stretching from Alston to Millom a task which was “extremely difficult” to perform.

Much more money would have to be spent for Cumbria to have a gold-plated service, but there was not the funding for that. What the county had was a “bronze service” at best, said Mr. Whiteley, meeting access needs to key service centres.

“We need to provide a level, but coherent network across the county. It is not going to be perfect,” he added.

The meeting was told that bus patronage in England had been in a long term decline since the 1950s and was still going down in shire counties, although there was a different trend in London. However, Cumbria was still managing to hold its own.

Mr. Whiteley said the county council had a responsibility to provide passenger services which the authority believed were appropriate, but it did not have a statutory duty to provide anything. It had powers to procure services which were socially necessary.

He said at least 80 per cent. of those attending the neighbourhood forum meeting were eligible for a concessionary travel card and could travel anywhere in Cumbria for free, but the bus provider would still get 74p per £1 of the fare.

Residents wanted to know why the Alston to Hexham service was under threat when there was a shortfall of just £876. On the day the county council carried out a survey of the Tuesday service, a total of 15 passengers travelled, but there was a big funeral in Alston that day, so a number of regular users did not make their usual journey.

Ian Wright, of Nenthead-based Wright Bros., said services the firm provided commercially would be affected if the county council continued to withdraw subsidies from those which needed support.

“The long and the short of it is that it would not be good news if that service to Hexham goes,” he said.

A letter was read out at the meeting from a community mental health nurse expressed concern that the county council, in coming to decisions about the bus cuts, had not taken into account needs of a vulnerable section of the local community, especially the plight of people in Nenthead.

The letter said that people with mental health problems, who were unable to drive, relied on public transport as a lifeline and added that the “stress the threats were causing was exacerbating their mental health needs”.

Concerns were also expressed that people who could not drive needed to use buses to get to work; they were not just used so people could get to their favourite shops.

Jules Cadie said that since deregulation in 1985 the county council had managed to sustain some sort of rural bus infrastructure, but in the past it had always been based on the need to react to things. However, now there was an opportunity to come up with a new model which was “responsive, not reactive”.

Mr. Cadie said in the Lake District bus travel was promoted through healthy living and tourism initiatives. There was already a fantastic infrastructure in place for the North Pennines which could be better utilised, but he did not know of any discussions which had taken place about how to provide better transport links there.

Ted Thompson said the county council should get more involved with neighbouring authorities in order to come up with an integrated system. Another bus user at the meeting called for a policy to be put in place that encouraged the use of public transport, so that people could use buses more, not less.