All change on the buses as cuts bite?

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Some rural bus routes may be gone within four years as Northamptonshire County Council tries to save more money.

As the council announced its updated budget plans last week, contained within them was a section about removing subsidies to bus firms during its four year financial plan.

The county council funds several bus routes, or parts of routes, that would not be commercially viable.

The majority of the routes it supports serve rural villages away from the towns of the county.

Some of these subsidised routes were removed a few years ago, and replaced by the County Connect dial-a-bus service.

Now the council is proposing introducing a ‘Total Transport’ project – it would see the council work with other bodies which pay for transporting people – like the NHS – to see if there are ways to save money by working together.

Currently the council is working with the University of Northampton, the NHS, further education establishments and businesses to collect data to create a snapshot of present and future transport needs. A plan will then be drawn up and will be presented to the council’s cabinet in the Autumn.

Cllr Michael Clarke, county council cabinet member for transport, highways and environment, said: “The traditional way of providing public transport needs to change to keep pace with the way we want to make journeys now and in the future.

“We have to look at modal change, changes in working hours and opportunities for more people who wish to work from home.

“Not only is the current model costly but it is also inefficient when you consider how congested our roads can be, particularly at peak hours. We will be examining opportunities for staggered working hours and how their introduction might help with the problems of historic ‘rush hour’ congestion.

“And while we can’t promise an immediate solution I do think it’s important that we start finding a way that not only works but that is also cost-effective as Northamptonshire’s population continues to grow.

“We have twin objectives of creating a variety of transport options to meet the changing needs of the travelling public while achieving substantial cost savings to the council.”

Any joint working or contracting with other bodies would clearly rely on them signing up to the plan – and public bodies will only do this if it is cost effective for them. And organisations like the NHS already contract out patient transport services, so those aspects could only join the Total Transport scheme when their contracts come up for renewal.

Interestingly, when the council announced these proposals, a spokesman said: “With a rapidly growing population, increased car ownership and town centre layouts that are hundreds of years old, radical proposals are needed to increase the efficiency of the transport network.”

That implies part of the transport plan would require major alteration works some to roads and junctions in towns across Northamptonshire.

This could range from simple junction re-configurations, through to creating bus lanes and cycleways, through to road widening.

The new ‘vision’ for the county’s public transport forms part of the county council’s savings programme for the coming years.

The announcement of the plan came as the county council said it was scaling back its planned budgetary cuts after a huge outcry from the public and other authorities. The council will now look to save £65 million, rather than the £84 million it previously stated.

The council believes that changing the way public transport is provided will save it money in the long term.

The authority is in a perilous financial situation as its grant from Westminster gets cut back. Before austerity kicked in such grants from Government provided the majority of the council’s income. Now many expect them to disappear altogether by 2020.

The council’s cabinet backed the reformed budget on Friday during an acrimonious meeting where the Tory politicians faced criticism from the public and members of other parties.

Many levelled complaints at the Government’s cuts, but others said local politicians had not done enough to appeal for more money, and had resisted tax rises due to politics.