Cost-cutting must not be the only factor

CUTTING bus services to communities should not be done purely on costs, a councillor has said.

Morpeth Town member Nic Best has hit out at the county council’s cuts to bus subsidies as an accountant’s approach and says it fails to take community issues into account.

At a meeting of the town’s Planning and Transport Committee he said: “I’m not very happy about the county council’s purely accountancy approach to cutting financial support for buses.

“It is just doing it on the basis of the total number of passengers against the cost to the council in terms of subsidies to the operator, which is a very crude measure.

“It doesn’t address the actual needs of the local community for a bus service.

“We did write and contribute to a Public Transport Strategy for Northumberland in the spring, but that hasn’t been published or adopted yet so I think this is a very unsatisfactory way of going about things.

“I recognise there are financial problems and the council is having to cut costs, but this is not the way to do it.”

He added: “What we need is for criteria to cover a broad range of things. This is purely accountancy led, saying it costs so much per passenger, but it doesn’t say whether it is a rural service or whether it is serving a lot of people who have access to alternative routes.”

Coun Best also criticised the county authority for failing to respond quickly enough to questions about community transport replacement services.

“It does offer the option to discuss with communities and parish councils replacements, but only after the cuts have been put in place,” he said.

“It happened with cuts to Kirkhill. That happened on August 31 and we still haven’t had a response talking about community transport replacements. It is unsatisfactory.”

Town and county councillor Ian Lindley said the authority is keen to engage with communities about the cuts.

He added: “The cuts have to be done according to some formula. There is a tightening of funds and there is a real detailed consultation process in order to get local communities to engage. It has to be done according to some formula to have fairness otherwise it becomes a subjective test.”

A Northumberland County Council spokeswoman said the authority had to identify ‘at risk’ services before the transport strategy is published due to budget constraints.

She said: “It is always unfortunate when services have to be withdrawn if not enough people are using them. If a service is going to be withdrawn we always try to consult with the communities concerned and listen to their comments and suggestions as to how a service might be changed to better meet people’s needs and encourage more passengers so it offers better value for money.”

She added: “The Get Going Fund for new community transport has been extensively advertised with an event earlier this year to which all parish and town councils, among others, were invited.

“At every step in the process of identifying bus services which are at risk we have drawn attention to the Get Going Fund and offered to help local communities and responded to requests for information and help.

“There will be further opportunities to apply for funding and we will gladly talk to anyone who wants further information or advice.

“If Dr Best or anyone else has any specific examples of where we have not been as helpful as we should have been they are welcome to contact us so we can put this right.”