Schemes to keep rural folk connected

John Wylde at the wheel  in Northumberland in 1986.
John Wylde at the wheel in Northumberland in 1986.

Northumberland is doing much better than some counties in keeping its rural bus services going.

Cumbria has made a decision to stop all support for such services by this time next year, and there are going to be some quite sizeable communities left entirely without public transport.

One of the reasons is that local authorities have a statutory duty to recompense bus operators for journeys made by holders of English national concessionary bus passes.

There are some misunderstandings about these passes. They are free to the users, but they do not cost anybody anything until they are used. To many of the elderly living in rural areas they are really beneficial, but of course they are no use at all if there are no buses!

The bus operators complain that the local authorities do not pay them all they are due, but the local authorities complain in turn that the Government does not pay them what they need to be able to pay the bus operators. At the end of this chain of complaint, the Government shrugs its shoulders and says it is up to the local authorities how they spend their money.

The way out of this dilemma for some councils is simply to cease support for rural bus services, so they save in two ways – first by not having to pay the support money, and secondly by not having to pay for the journeys made by concessionary pass holders, who have no buses to use.

There are plenty of people living in rural areas who have no need of buses. They have their cars. In areas where there are no buses they could offer lifts to people. This is becoming the Government’s last resort strategy for rural transport.

Where there are still buses, people who do not need to use them could help those who do need them by using them instead of their car, and if they have a bus pass to keep it in their pocket and pay their fare.

This will help their neighbours, the bus operators, the county council and the Government.

If enough people do this the threat of losing their buses will evaporate.

Apart from direct lift-giving, there have for many years been other sorts of rural transport schemes.

There have been post-buses, which sadly stopped because the Post Office could not agree on the level of support needed from local authorities.

There have been community bus schemes, where people living in rural areas have run do-it-yourself bus services. I was involved in starting and running what I claim to have been the first of these 50 years ago.

Apart from myself, several members of the rural community in this area on the outer limits of a London borough were involved in the planning and operation of the service, including three highly-paid city gents who were tickled pink to be bus drivers on Saturdays.

Most schemes of this sort were in rural counties, and there is plenty of scope for such enterprise in Northumberland.

One of the pictures shows me with the minibus on a cold and snowy day soon after the scheme started in 1963 – no wonder there were no passengers on that occasion, but the service is still running, now as one of the rural outposts of the Transport for London network. The other shows me again, but in Northumberland in 1986, with one of the taxibuses which ran for about 10 years in the north of the county and into the Borders.