Fewer buses, more tax

SIR – I attended the meeting in Langford on Tuesday, January 9 in order to get a clear understanding of the proposed changes to bus services serving Langford. James Freeman, for Stagecoach East, indicated the background to the announcement affecting the c

SIR - I attended the meeting in Langford on Tuesday, January 9 in order to get a clear understanding of the proposed changes to bus services serving Langford.

James Freeman, for Stagecoach East, indicated the background to the announcement affecting the commercial M3 service linking Bedford, Biggleswade and Hitchin, and the tendered services serving other East Beds villages. The law on deregulation of bus services places a statutory requirement for 56 days notice on proposals to withdraw or revise commercial and tendered bus services.

In order to provide the 56 days period ending on Sunday, February 18 the announcement by Stagecoach had to be made in the week ending Friday, December 22. Due to the Christmas/New Year period the opportunity for Beds County Council to evaluate the proposal and respond was reduced by around ten days.

The absence of any response over the holiday period on action to reassess the package of tendered local bus services, with the M3 route added to the package, simply provided fuel for the rumour mill. The Langford meeting did a great deal to recover the position by stating that a revised package of tendered services would replace those services now placed on the table for reassessment by Beds County Council, albeit 21 days into the consultation period.

In the uproar from angry bus users, whose preparation for the meeting had been on the basis of losing their services, a very significant comment was made by James Freeman, which appeared to be lost on many of those attending.

"Mr Stagecoach" stated that, apart from subsidy by Beds County Council for tendered journeys, the sole source of income for Stagecoach PLC was from the fare-box. He stated that the company receives no income from Mid-Beds or South-Beds Councils for passengers who use their concessionary passes, for which free travel is now in place.

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The basis for the present commercial and tendered network was drawn up before the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced free travel within each district for pensioners and the disabled as part of a pre-election Budget statement. This will soon become a national off-peak free travel scheme as the result of a subsequent budget statement.

The fact that the previous concessionary travel scheme enabled Stagecoach, and other bus operators, to collect a nominal 50p fare on concessionary travel has had a serious impact on the finances for rural bus services. Free travel for pensioners and the disabled had been the order of the day in many large cities, but switching off the 50p per single journey contribution, with no alternative funding, has created the problem now faced by rural bus operators.

Beds County Council now has to re-slice the financial cake for tendered services to add in a subsidy for the M3 route, while under pressure to reduce the Council Tax charge for Bedfordshire residents. The inevitable result will be a reduction in the level of service provided across the portfolio of tendered routes.

We now have a reassurance that the total loss of bus services is not on the table, but we have to face the fact that the total level of taxation from Council Tax, VAT and Income Tax has to rise. Changing the parameters for concessionary travel as an election sweetener has come home to roost.

My own use of local bus services is on the basis of covering maintenance and repair periods for my private car, also as a park and ride service from home to Bedford and Hitchin, where the availability of car parking space is a problem. I used the former 191 service to Stevenage to cover medical requirements, but this had to be replaced by changes to the methods of providing those specific medical services.

I look forward to joining the ranks of concessionary travel users in 2009 when the option of free travel will reduce my private car mileage. I just hope that an adequate service, with minimal need to make complex changes, will still be in place.

COLIN BASSETT

Brookside Bungalow

Langford Road

Biggleswade

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