The Leader of Kent County Council (KCC) has been forced to apologise after a list of bus services facing an uncertain future was published “prematurely”.
Councillor Paul Carter has also made a ‘personal pledge’ to handle negotiations with bus companies in an effort to keep some of the routes open.
And he added: “I can provide reassurance that any changes will not materially impact on home to school transport for parents and their children given our statutory obligations for home to school transport.”
Financial Because of budget cuts KCC is considering ending its subsidy in support of 78 services, which includes a combined 23 in Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge, to save an estimated £4million.
County Hall provides financial support to some services. Ending this could see anything from one bus a week being stopped to a whole service being cut.
This week Cllr Carter said: “I think that list of routes was prematurely released and I am sorry it has caused people understandable concern.”
It is understood the list of 78 routes sent out by the council which could be affected is not the final version and Councillor Carter is concerned it was sent too soon.
Among those on the list are the: 222 – Tonbridge to Borough Green, 296 – Tunbridge Wells to Paddock Wood and 293 – Tunbridge Wells to Tenterden / Rye. Councillor Carter is planning to meet with leaders of travel firms Stagecoach and Arriva before Christmas to discuss the arrangements further.
But the councillor has shown no sign of backing down on the plan and will also consult with community bus providers as well as taxi services.
He said: “It is true that bus subsidies are among the potential savings we must look at in the coming budget in February but we understand the importance of these transport arrangements to people.
“We are progressing a programme that could potentially significantly reduce the list of affected routes in advance of the public consultation, set to start in January.
“Because of this I am making a personal pledge to handle the forthcoming programme of negotiations with bus operators to try to persuade them to keep a significant number of routes going without subsidy.”
Chiefs from Arriva and Stagecoach were also criticised for raising ticket prices by 3.5 per cent, which is above inflation.
A spokesman from Arriva said: “KCC has asked us to review what we might be in a position to operate without support.
“This has seen a review and there are none that we believe are self-supporting owing to low patronage.
“We can only operate where the route or service is viable and self-supporting. We would be unable to operate a route that is not able to support itself commercially as that would risk other routes.”
A spokesman for Stagecoach said: “The majority of our services are commercial and do not receive a subsidy. The impact is likely to be on certain journeys when the buses are less well used.”
KCC is looking to find savings of £62.5million ahead of their budget in February, which has been blamed on demand pressures, inflation and reduction in central Government funding.
Meetings Councillor Carter said he would also be meeting with smaller bus operators to discuss the routes at risk and how they could help reduce the impact.
He added: “I have scheduled meetings with taxi operators to explore the development of a taxi share scheme to support rural communities alongside expanding community minibuses.
“The continued discretionary subsidy provided through Young Person’s Travel Pass which we committed to keep in our manifesto for the County Council elections earlier this year.”
Hugo Pound, chairman of Tunbridge Wells Labour Party, said: “These proposed cuts to bus services will disproportionately hit a large number of people living in our borough’s rural communities.
“KCC is complicit in an austerity culture seen at all tiers of government. Time and time again those hit most are those who can least afford it.
“I would like to hear Cllr Carter and KCC publicly object to this Government’s policy of [cutting] local authority funding.
“It’s all very well to say that times are tough, but they are tougher for some than others and it is those people that KCC is seemingly targeting.
“Cllr Carter bemoans the 3.5 per cent rise in Arriva’s and Stagecoach’s costs this coming year.
“That is nothing compared to the 15 per cent rise his own councillors awarded themselves earlier in the year.”