Bus services under threat

RURAL communities across north Suffolk face the prospect of losing their bus links as the county council aims to cut its public transport budget by more than half.

Some fairly large market towns could be left with no buses at all and Halesworth faces being left with just one service.

The county is looking to cut its public transport budget from �4.2m to �1.9m next year.

Such a cut would lead to far deeper cuts than those already under discussion.

Last month we revealed a list of 60 weekend, evening and “market day” services under review had been sent to parish councils and other interested bodies.

However, now it has emerged that if all the subsidies to those services were axed, it would only save about �1m from the county’s public transport budget.

A further �1.3m in cuts is being sought – and this could lead to deep cuts throughout the county. The county pays independent operators to run services, and it is thought unlikely many – if any at all – could survive without a subsidy.

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Halesworth town councillor Malcolm Smith said the implications of the cuts could be enormous and would mean the only services left in Halesworth will be the privately sponsored Halesworth Hopper and the commercially viable, Anglia Bus service 588 to Norwich.

“I have recently made a point of using the local bus services and have seen for myself just how very important the current services are to our rural community,” he said.

“Often the users are the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. I wonder how many members of Suffolk County Council use the bus services?

“The five-year contracts between the county council and the bus companies, which began last April, will finish after just one year…The implications for the bus companies who have invested heavily in new buses and for their drivers, who stand to lose their jobs, are enormous.”

Guy McGregor, county councillor with responsibility for transport, is still negotiating with officials and his cabinet colleagues in an attempt to get more money for public transport.

He said: “As things stand, the situation is looking very difficult. The number of services we are able to subsidise would be seriously cut back and we are looking at all the options. But as things stand, the number of services we are able to run will be seriously cut back.”

Dr Wil Gibson, chief executive of Suffolk Acre, said he was concerned that the level of service cuts proposed would increase isolation in rural areas – especially for young people.

He said: “There are a large number of evening and weekend bus services on this list and they are the kind of services that are used by young people just gaining their independence. Those living in rural areas will find their options to get out independently of their parents seriously cut back.”

He acknowledged that some of the routes did not have many passengers – but others provided a vital lifeline for people getting to and from work.

Dr Gibson said: “If the council does go ahead with these reductions then what will happen to the money it saves? We would want to see a substantial investment in community-demand responsive transport and other schemes like the moped scheme to give young people the ability to get to work.”

He also repeated his call for the county to look at allowing the general public to use school bus services.

He said: “The county has to look at every way of getting the most from its transport. If they are saying that adults and schoolchildren cannot travel on the same bus then that really is the nanny state gone mad.”