CAMBRIDGESHIRE County Council is set to reinstate £1.5million of the £2.7m it had planned to save by eliminating bus subsidies.
The original move was opposed by the public transport pressure group, the Campaign for Better Transport, which backed a bid by the mother of a disabled child to ask the High Court for judicial review of the decision.
The council backed down and mounted a wide public consultation on alternative ways of meeting residents’ transport needs across Cambridgeshire.
The result is “targeted community and alternative transport solutions in place of bus subsidies,” the council said yesterday (Tuesday).
What that will mean in practice, said a spokesman, is optimising the use of community transport vehicles – for example using the minibuses provided to meet one local need to meet that of nearby communities and, perhaps, take village scout groups on outings at weekends – and sharing transport services with other providers such as the NHS.
It will not necessarily mean the end of bus subsidies in the county, the spokesman conceded. Where only small subsidies or minor timetable changes are needed to make services commercially viable, they will be retained within the £1.5m provision.
Subsidies to irredeemably loss-making services will be phased out over three years, with local needs being met in other ways, after more than 80 per cent of respondents opposed the blanket cut.
“A thorough assessment of local needs will be made first and alternative local transport measures identified wherever possible,” the council said.
“These proposed solutions would be developed as part of the forward-looking Cambridgeshire Future Transport project that aims to develop more targeted, effective and locally-needed transport provision.
“This could include community transport, sharing of transport services with other providers, such as the health sector, or working with bus operators to make existing subsidised services commercial.
“The council will work closely with communities to bring in alternative transport measures to better suit local needs and save money at the same time.”
The Campaign for Better Transport welcomed the council’s new approach. The charity’s bus campaigner Sophie Allain told The Hunts Post: “They were doing things the wrong way round without assessing how local needs could best be met. What we hoped was that they would take time to do that before making this sort of decision.”
The county’s Liberal Democrats claimed the policy change as a “dramatic U-turn”.
“This partial U-turn is a big victory for the Lib Dems and good news for local bus users,” said party leader on the authority Councillor Kilian Bourke. “The Tories have finally relented and accepted the principle that you cannot provide socially necessary rural transport for nothing.
“Abating 50 per cent of the cuts is a big improvement on the 100 per cent cut that was planned, which was the worst in the country.
“This will allow some of the bus services the Tories still intend to cut to be replaced with some form of alternative. It is just a shame they didn’t listen to the public’s concern and reinstate more of the funding.”
County Councillor Steve Criswell, cabinet member for community infrastructure, said: “It is clear that people value their subsidised bus services which is why we paid for them even though commercially they were not viable.
“But with the large savings we, like other authorities, have to make we have to look at whether these bus services can be better provided, rather than using large vehicles to carry a relatively small number of people.
“That is why we are considering investing £1.5 million into alternative transport solutions and phasing reductions over three years.”
The new policy is subject to cabinet approval.