Community bus plans debated

A NEW community bus service could be heading to Stobhill.

Elderly and disabled residents in the area say they have been cut off after the M3 minibus to Morpeth town centre was withdrawn by Astley Coaches earlier this year.

Talks are under way with transport providers Watbus, Adapt North East and North East Equality and Diversity about setting up a weekly link to the town centre.

And around £3,900 may be sought from the Get Going Fund to support the proposal.

However, members of Morpeth Town Council have been told that any grant would depend on a financial contribution from the authority.

Coun Alison Byard said: “We don’t want to leave this too long because passengers can’t get down into town.

“The community is waiting to hear from all the providers before it makes a decision about which one would be the best to go with, but for the grant we have to provide evidence of sustainability so we need a letter from the town council saying it is minded to support it.”

However, members of the council’s Planning and Transport Committee were concerned that there would be insufficient interest in the scheme.

Committee Chairman Ken Brown said: “Some of the money would have to come from fares. I wonder what the likelihood is of having a full bus of 16 people all of the time.”

Coun Byard said feedback showed that 23 people would use the service regularly, while other residents were interested, but had not received the survey.

Coun David Parker said the matter would have to be considered by the council’s finance committee along with other budgetary issues.

He said: “What the Finance and General Purposes Committee needs to do is look at this issue in the round in terms of alternative provision and possible approaches from other parts of the town.

“This council can in no way commit itself to financial support of this kind for future years until we get the budget sorted out.

“I am very much advising the Finance and General Purposes Committee not to make any significant increases in recurring expenditure until all of the budget needs are established.”

Member Bob Robertson said a suggested £2 each-way charge for using the bus service could put people off.

“I think it is a lot of money and quite possibly people are not going to go for it. I think it is too much,” he said.

Coun David Clark added: “There is no business case for this. It is unsustainable.

“There are plenty of taxi firms that could charge £2 to take you anywhere in the town centre. They would wait and pick you up at the door and take your shopping to the door for you. It might be cheaper to give taxi tokens out.”

However, Coun Nic Best suggested that the council could offer to underwrite the fares element of the scheme for the first year, up to £1,600.

He said: “We don’t know what the estimated costs will be because we haven’t got all of the quotes in yet, but what we are talking about is £3,900 from the grant and £1,600 coming from fares, which would cover the total costs of the operator.

“I suggest that we underwrite the £1,600 estimated for costs so that if the fares don’t cover that total we would meet the shortfall, but if they do then we wouldn’t pay anything.

“It will allow us to test if the service is sustainable and if there is demand for it because we wouldn’t want to commit money for future years if the bus is not going to be used.”

Members agreed by five votes to two, with one abstention, to recommend Coun Best’s proposal to the Finance and General Purposes Committee for consideration.

Meanwhile, Coun Byard will find out more about the level of commitment required of the council and whether taxis could be used as alternative provision.