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County seeks finance for would-be rural bus drivers

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Cambridgeshire CC hopes a project to integrate transport spending will help create a new generation of small businesses to fill the gap left after withdrawing all its subsidies to bus operators.

Leader Nick Clarke (Con) said the scheme was in its early stages but aimed to bundle together school, social services and community transport budgets into a single pot, together with health transport spending if the local NHS agreed.

Voluntary groups and small businesses would then bid to run services in rural areas to quality standards set by the council.

The county spends £20m a year on community, social services and education transport but is phasing out its £2.7m spending on subsidies for ordinary bus services.

It is the only council apart from Hartlepool BC to entirely scrap the subsidies.

“The idea is to create services that would be financially viable for a small business,” Cllr Clarke said.

“The bus that takes children to school in the morning could then spend the day taking people to doctors’ and hospital appointments, pick children up again in the afternoon and transport teenagers home from towns in the evenings.”

Other members of the public would be able to use these services for journeys between villages and towns. The county hopes to have a pathfinder in place by autumn.

Cllr Clarke said that when the county subsidised conventional buses they had run largely empty on fixed routes, with vehicles left idle for much of the day.

A survey in February by the Association of Transport Coordinating Officers found financial support for bus routes was set to fall at more than half of English councils, under pressure from spending cuts, reform of the concessionary fares scheme and Government reductions to bus service operator grants from next year.

ATCO chair Bruce Thompson said Cambridgeshire’s plan “sounds a nice idea but you have to remember that the Community Transport Association told a select committee that its members could only replace 10-15% of subsidised bus services, so you have to wonder about the degree to which voluntary groups will be willing to take this on.

“I’d be surprised if small businesses not already involved in transport would be attracted into it, as it is a challenge to run any services in deeply rural areas without some public support.”

David Sidebottom, buses director of the transport users’ watchdog Passenger Focus said: “This is certainly an interesting idea which has the potential to reduce the impact of Cambridgeshire County Council‘s cuts to bus services.

“However, it is essential that the buses which people depend on the most are protected and passengers are fully consulted prior to any further changes or introduction of new services.”

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