Ribble Valley MP Nigel Evans is calling for a Government minister to intervene in what he has dubbed a “sham consultation” about impending £7.5m cuts to all public bus service subsidies.
The Tory MP attacked Lancashire County Council’s handling of the bus cuts as Government Minister Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons, outlined Commons’ business for the week ahead.
But just a day later the council announced it was setting up a new cross-party Cabinet Working Group on Bus Services which meets for the first time today.
Its brief is to examine the impact of the proposed withdrawal of subsidies and advise on how best to spend a £2m fund earmarked to provide transport solutions for affected communities.
Mr Evans, whose constituency would be especially affected by the cuts, with all services through Ribchester due to end on February 21, had told the Commons: “Let me give the Leader of the House an opportunity to be a white knight for the people of Lancashire.The county council has embarked on a consultation about the withdrawal of subsidies from bus services. The consultation will close at the end of March, but in the meantime the council has already told bus operators that it will withdraw the subsidies, and some services will cease on February 21.
“Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to make a statement about this sham consultation, and about what can be done to help some of the most elderly and vulnerable people, living in villages, who will be isolated if the bus cuts go ahead?”
Mr Grayling replied: “He is right. It is not acceptable for a county council — a Labour-controlled county council — to announce a proposal, to consult on that proposal, and then to start to take action before it has even seen the responses to the consultation; but that, of course, is what Labour is really like when it holds power.”
Cabinet member County Coun John Fillis replied: “Mr Evans should be asking the Minister to set up a special fund to specifically support rural transport and the people of Lancashire...The Council has been working hard to avoid such a decision, but we now recognise that the Government’s insistence on reducing public service to a minimum can no longer be avoided.”
He said the cuts would affect some 15% of the bus network and were the direct result of Tory austerity measures, which would see further cuts of £262 million in the county over the next five years, on top of £300 million already being cut: “Austerity means cuts to people’s bus services. Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Somerset, Dorset, West Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hertfordshire, North Yorkshire and The Prime Minister own Conservative Council, Oxfordshire are all cutting bus subsidies.”
The subsidies range from 42p to £12.31p per passenger and their removal will hit rural routes particularly.
Coun Fillis said: “Consultation has been undertaken regarding the cuts to bus subsidies, the findings of which were published two weeks ago... This consultation is now closed with the final decision being taken on 11th February 2016. The county council will continue to support concessionary travel for the elderly and disabled, known as the NOW Card. We will not be withdrawing the NOW card agreements.”
County Councillor Paul Hayhurst, chair of the Working Group, said: “Our job will be to look at the £2m funding we now have, to identify who needs transport and find out how best to deliver this with the money available.
“We face a tough financial challenge and this won’t be an easy task, but the group is made up of county councillors from all parties and I’m sure they will come forward with some good ideas about how to make best use of the £2m funding.”
But Ribble Valley South West Conservative county councillor Alan Schofield said the idea previously floated, that local residents could run bus services, with the council providing and maintaining the bus was a non-starter, particularly in areas served by small parish councils. He said: “None of the parish councils in Ribble Valley are saying it is feasible at all. The parish councils would be required to decide a time table, employ drivers and run the risk of having a loss.”