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Friday, 25 July 2014

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Alternative schemes could plug gap left by Cumbria's axed bus services

It’s Tuesday morning in the Eden Valley and Ann Wilson heads to the bus stop to catch the 961 bus from Ellonby to Penrith.

Rural buses photo
Matha Atkinson, left and Olwen Simpson at Skelton bus stop

In neighbouring Skelton, Olwen Simpson and friend Martha Atkinson hop on for their weekly trip, to do some shopping and have lunch.

It’s a routine these pensioners have come to rely on. The service doesn’t just enable them to get to the supermarket or pick up a prescription, it’s a trip out of the house and a chance to chat to fellow passengers.

But from next month the weekly service will be axed, along with 18 other subsidised rural bus routes in north Cumbria.

The annual government grant for local authorities has been slashed and the cuts represent a saving to the council of £340,000, part of the £33m total it has to deliver this year.

According to the council, the routes selected are some of the least used in the county. Only three per cent of the passengers who currently travel on council-supported journeys use the buses being withdrawn.

But statistics like these do little to soften the blow for people like Ann, Olwen and Martha.

“It came as a surprise to hear that it was going to be taken off. It is absolutely terrible, there must be other ways of dealing with cutbacks,” says Ann.

“I’ve lived in Ellonby for more than 50 years. I’ve never driven and always used buses. A lot of people who use the bus are pensioners and we need reliable transport into town, for shopping or prescriptions. It will be very much missed by people.”

Olwen Simpson, 81, does drive – but chooses to get the weekly bus because she likes the social side.

“I use it every week and about eight of us get it from Skelton. A lot of the people don’t drive and are on their own, so they get the bus and have lunch out.

“It’s a lifeline for some people, it gets them out the house and would be such a shame if it’s lost.

“It’s all right for people younger than us who make these decisions about cuts, but they don’t seem to realise old age comes to you eventually and you rely on these services.”

Most of the affected routes operate only one or two days a week, largely to provide shopping trips to large towns, but the cuts, which will come into effect at the end of April, will leave many villages without any public transport.

These include Ennerdale Bridge, Great Orton, Ivegill, Low Moresby, Moat near Skelton and Wreay.

Councillor Tim Knowles, the county council cabinet member for transport, says: “It is a nightmare scenario for local authorities. We have been forced into this situation as a result of the government cutting our budget in this area.

“We were given three months to make decisions and implement them by April.

“My public transport team has been working flat out, rigorously analysing usage and cost for each route.

“It gives me absolutely no pleasure and I know some people will be disadvantaged by the cuts.

“On the other side though, some services are extremely expensive to provide, up to £15 per person per journey. That’s a large amount of money in these straitened times.”

Slashing the bus services will have a wider effect, too – not just affecting individuals but whole communities. Over the years village shops, post offices and pubs have closed.

Now, with no way of accessing rural Cumbria without a car, isn’t there a danger communities will stagnate and become little more than places with a few holiday homes?

“Yes absolutely, I can see the dangers of isolated communities but I believe there are viable alternatives, such as the Rural Wheels scheme and the voluntary car scheme,” Mr Knowles asserts.

So could these signal the future of public transport in rural Cumbria? For some, that future has already arrived.

Pearl Taylor, who lives near Little Blencow, has been using the council-supported Rural Wheels scheme since it started three years ago. She was practically housebound after an accident at work but now gets out several times a week, to go shopping and carry out voluntary work in Penrith.

“It’s changed my life,” she says.

“Basically I am back in the human race again. It’s great for a lot of people who live on their own and don’t drive for one reason and another.

“There’s not been a bus service between Blencow and Penrith for a lot of years now.

“You don’t like to ask family or neighbours for a lift all the time but then it means you don’t go out. I’m not sure people understand what it’s about.

“You don’t have to be old, you can be a young person going to college. And it’s a fantastic service especially if you are on a tight budget.

“A taxi into town and back was costing me between £18 and £20 but this is £1.50 for five miles. I praise it up to the skies, it’s given me so much freedom.”

Doreen Bell, who lives in Fletchertown, near Wigton, has also been using Rural Wheels since it started. She travels to Aspatria twice a week to look after her elderly mum.

“The bus goes through Fletchertown but only on a Tuesday and Friday, and I go to my mum’s on a Monday and Wednesday,” she says.

“There is a bus to Cockermouth but you have to walk to Mealsgate. It’s quite a walk and there’s no shelter. I don’t have a car so I rely on Rural Wheels. I’d be stuck without it. It’s very easy, I pay with a Smartcard and it’s only 30p a mile.”

The Northern Fells group runs a minibus service for people who don’t have their own transport in the parishes of Ireby, Uldale, Boltons, Caldbeck, Sebergham, Westward, Mungrisdale and Castle Sowerby.

Dr Jim Cox, from Caldbeck, is one of the founders of the charity. He says: “More people now have their own transport, and rural bus services are not economic – they are run on subsidies so they are obvious target for cuts but this has a disproportionate effect on rural and remote areas.

“If anything it will increase demand for our service, but we will have to wait and see if there are enough volunteers to cover it.

“Certainly one of the things we have found is that there’s a fantastic amount of energy and commitment from local people to help neighbours and people in the community, and not just people with a lot of time on their hands.”

From his point of view, Mr Knowles says he hopes Rural Wheels and the voluntary car scheme can plug the gaps where there will no longer be buses.

“The county council remains committed to providing community transport and to support schemes like the Rural Wheels initiative and voluntary car driver schemes.

“These provide a very valuable and flexible alternative. The bus services being cut were not well patronised. Many routes had a handful of passengers, and that’s one reason they’ve been chosen, so we will have to see what the extra demand for these schemes is.

“But if we can make the alternative work in these areas, we will.”

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