Friday, 8 July 2011

Bus Subsidy Cuts - Stay of Execution

Guided Bus, opening August 2011
Cambridgeshire County Council’s Conservative administration made an arrogant decision when it made a 100% cut to bus subsidies in its budget setting exercise earlier this year.

The council’s own public consultation gave a very clear message: Cambridgeshire residents listed bus services as one of their top three most valued public services. The Conservative Cabinet, led by Cllr Nick Clarke, ignored this message and made the worst bus subsidy cuts in England. Bus subsidies were to be swept off the map, in several stages, with no assessment of the impact these reckless cuts would have on those who depended on them.

Liberal Democrat County Councillors argued from the beginning against the cuts. They found room in their balanced alternative budget proposal to prevent the £2.7 million cut as well as proposing a root and branch review of bus subsidies to understand exactly what was working well and what needed improvement.

Across Cambridgeshire subsidized buses are often a life-line for vulnerable people. Other local authorities conducted thorough research on subsidized buses before making decisions about which subsidies should go, in order to protect the needs of less mobile people. Cambridgeshire was unique in wholesale cutting in the dark.

The first subsidies were withdrawn just eight weeks after the budget was passed, and a number of buses that many people depended on have now disappeared. The Cambridge City Centre free shuttle bus is an example that everyone will know - set up as a "category 2" bus, meaning it enabled vulnerable residents to get to the market square.

Unsurprisingly there has been a great deal of grassroots campaigning against the cuts: local village campaigns, petitions to the council’s cabinet, and also, a judicial review brought forward by the parent of a special needs child.

The judicial review is now pending and the council has realized that it had better stop and take a close look before proceeding further with bus subsidy cuts.

The news that the process of withdrawing bus subsidies is good. But people are asking what retrospective action will be taken on buses which have already disappeared? Why the expensive and meticulously examined public consultation exercise last year, which held vital information about taxpayers’ wishes and needs, was simply ignored?

Is this a genuine rethink or just a stay of execution while the Conservative administration does some box-checking?