Age UK has called for “indispensable” local bus routes which have been cut after losing local government support to be brought back. Older residents from Paulton and Midsomer Norton have been left without their freedom since the bus cuts, read below for their experiences.
The charity, which campaigns on issues such as poverty and loneliness among older people, called for West of England Metro Mayor Dan Norris to work with it on creating a bus service that worked for older people. It warned: “The current system is at risk of further isolating vulnerable groups.”
In a letter to Mr Norris, the chief executives of the Bath and North East Somerset, North Somerset, Bristol, and South Gloucestershire branches of Age UK expressed their “collective concern” and called for “a more balanced approach to the provision of public transport within our region.”
Bus routes which are vital for communities but are not profitable for bus companies to run have long been financially supported by local authorities, with the arrangement in the West of England being that the constituent councils pay a transport levy to the Metro Mayor who uses it to pay for the routes. But after a funding row between the Metro Mayor and the councils over who should fund the buses, the combined authority announced at the start of the year that 42 buses would be cut across the West of England.
In rural North East Somerset, one of the hardest hit areas, many villages have been left without buses. The Chew Valley was left with just one bus — the 672 into Bristol — until this was also cut.
The situation has left people in rural communities, and particularly the older generation, isolated. Marion Harrington, 90, lives in Paulton and, after her bus into Midsomer Norton was cut, said: “We haven’t got the freedom we want.”
In their letter to Mr Norris, the Age UK bosses warned: “Supported bus routes are indispensable, providing reliable access to healthcare, social engagements, and essential services for our older residents and those facing the greatest inequalities in our communities. They extend beyond mere transport services, acting as lifelines that foster inclusivity and enable fuller participation in community life.”
The cuts came as the West of England received £57m of Bus Service Improvement Plan funding from the government, which was used to fund the birthday bus pass scheme and the WESTlink demand-responsive bus service.
In their letter, Age UK said: “The birthday bus pass scheme by the West of England Combined Authority, alongside the recent introduction of the WESTlink service, represents innovative steps toward boosting passenger numbers and enhancing connectivity in rural and remote areas. However, the initial challenges faced by the WESTlink service, particularly the reported unavailability of minibuses and accessibility of the app, highlight the essential role that supported bus routes and community transport play in our public transportation ecosystem.”
The letter added: “The birthday bus scheme, while catchy, may not adequately address the core transportation needs of many of our residents, especially when compared to the benefits derived from supported bus routes and community transport initiatives. The essence of public transportation is to provide reliable, accessible, and inclusive services to all, particularly those facing the greatest barriers.
“We urge the West of England Combined Authority to prioritise and re-allocate adequate funding to supported bus routes and community transport, alongside further exploration and refinement of innovative schemes like the WESTlink service.
“A balanced, well-funded public transportation system comprising these elements is pivotal for fostering a vibrant, inclusive, and accessible community.”
Bath and North East Somerset Council — who Mr Norris accused of being “deceptive” and “means-spirited” — had called on Mr Norris to use some of the Bus Service Improvement Plan funding from the government to pay for the routes, but Mr Norris insisted it was the council’s responsibility to pay for the buses and he was only allowed to spend funding “new and innovative schemes.”
The government has since indicated that some of the money can be used for supported buses. At a West of England Combined Authority committee meeting in October, Mr Norris set out a plan to spend £1.1m of the funding on supported services but vetoed a plan by council leaders to restore buses using £7m of leftover funding from the birthday bus scheme.
Sisters Margaret Dando, 80, and Janet Stevens, 88, live in Paulton, and were at a protest outside the meeting. Ms Dando said she relied on the 82, which came to the estate she lives on, to visit her disabled son in Midsomer Norton and now she has to walk further to the next bus.
Speaking at the October protest, before the weather got colder, she said: “We are lucky at the moment. Janet’s 88. We can just about manage to walk down the bus stop at the moment. But it takes us about 15-20 minutes to do so. We won’t be able to do that in the winter.”
LDRS, John Wimperis