Parishes weigh up backing for community buses

SURVEYS have been ordered in two Northumberland parishes to weigh up support for community bus services.

Both Pegswood and Widdrington Station and Stobswood parish councils are looking into a scheme to fill the gaps from the axed Arriva 518 service.

Hundreds of villagers protested at the loss of the route, which they said would cut off vital links to local health services, but the company refused to rethink its plans and the service stopped last month.

Now Northumberland County Council has suggested parishes apply to the Get Going Fund for support to set up a community transport service and Watbus has put forward a number of options.

Initially, it was thought that one service could serve several communities, but due to costs and passenger numbers two separate services would have to run – one covering Pegswood and Longhirst, and the other for Widdrington Station and Stobswood, with both going on to Morpeth.

However, the councils need to determine how much support there is for the proposal and whether it would be financially viable.

Members in Widdrington Station and Stobswood were told it would cost around £200 a week for a 16-seater bus to make three trips around the parish and on to Morpeth, one day a week.

Passengers would have to pay up to £3 a year to join a membership club to use the service and pay a small charge for each journey made, booking their seats in advance each week.

However, final details have not been decided and the council agreed to carry out a parish-wide survey to assess the level of support before proceeding further.

Chairman Joe Sennett said: “We would give it a two-month trial if this community bus ever goes, but before we do that we need to send out leaflets to every door.

“Please send them back to us with comments, even if you are not going to use the bus. It really is important to get a good answer back to see if we can afford to put this bus on.

“Without this survey we can’t move further.

“We need to get this back from every resident and get their views.”

Parish Clerk Richard Smith added: “The questionnaire is two-fold.

“It gives the parish an idea of the interest there is in this and whether it is viable, but we also have got to have this for the application to the Get Going Fund – we need to show that it would have customers.”

The survey will cost around £250 for printing and distribution.

Some members questioned whether the service would ever be viable, even if it is well supported, but agreed to seek public feedback.

Coun Shelly Willoughby said: “We have got to give people the option of this service given the amount of concern there was about the loss of the Arriva service.

“At this moment we can’t say whether it is going to be cost-effective, we have to see what comes out.

“If the response doesn’t demonstrate sufficiently the need, fair enough, but we have to send the form out to get feedback.

“We could get people responding asking to go to Ashington after 6pm so we are probably opening a can of worms with a lot of questions, but residents have a right to ask and that is what we are here for, to try to assist.”

A consultation exercise is currently taking place in Pegswood and Longhirst to see if there is support for a service that would run from Longhirst to Morpeth via Pegswood and the medical centre.

Chairman of Pegswood Parish Council Peter Stonell, said: “It was very disappointing to have the 518 service cut so shortly after Arriva amended its timetables to ensure the medical centre was properly provided for.

“If there is a demonstrated support for this service a trial scheme will be undertaken for the next six months, with buses running each Wednesday for two to three round trips.

“External funding has been found for the trial and if it is successful then the parish council could take on the costs of running the service.

“The only issue some users may have with the service is that journeys will cost £1 per single trip as the Bus Club that would be set up cannot accept any concessionary passes.”

Consultation forms can be handed in during the public session on the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan at Pegswood Social Club on Saturday. Otherwise, they should be handed into the parish office at the Uniun Enterprise Centre off Front Street.