Sunday, 22 September 2019

Community buses ‘need more funding to survive’

THE owner of a community bus service says it needs more funding to survive.

Mike Ward launched his not-for-profit venture Going Forward in early 2017, almost a year after Oxfordshire County Council scrapped all its bus subsidies to save money.

The service was initially based in Goring, where Mr Ward lives, and connected it with neighbouring villages as well as Caversham and Reading in order to replace a similar route which had folded.

It has since expanded to cover a large chunk of South Oxfordshire, including Henley, Sonning Common, Benson, Watlington and further afield.

But Mr Ward says that while the service helps elderly residents and others who do not drive, it struggles to make ends meet and he has to subsidise it from his own pocket.

At the end of this month, his twice-weekly “parks route” from Goring to Reading via Pangbourne, Whitchurch Hill and villages along the A4074 will be scrapped on Saturdays due to falling usage.

Mr Ward, who has a fleet of five minibuses and employs four full- or part-time drivers, has tried without success to find volunteers who could run it and says it loses up to £100 a day. He says that a similar company exists in Witney and relies on funding from the town council so other authorities could follow this example.

Goring Parish Council has given £2,000 towards this year’s services, which face a shortfall of at least £15,000, and a pressure group is being set up to encourage others to chip in. 

Mr Ward says he lives a “precarious existence” as he depends on income from concessionary fares, which comes from the county council, and if the rate was reduced it would be impossible to keep going.

He fears the Government could force non-for-profit operators to undergo the same level of training and pay the same licensing application fees as commercial companies.

There have been calls from bigger firms to introduce this as they claim community buses have an unfair advantage.

Mr Ward wrote to Henley MP John Howell outlining his concerns but says he was offered no solutions.

He says Mr Howell told him non-profit operators were a better way to provide services and, in future, companies like Going Forward could offer rides on demand through smartphone apps similar to Uber.

Mr Howell said these could one day be driven by computers instead of people and, if demand was sufficient, could run commercially.

However, he didn’t say how this would help Going Forward in the short-term.

Mr Ward said: “With the Government seemingly wanting us to use public transport more, yet there being this apparent disparity between the rhetoric and what is happening ‘on the ground’ in Oxfordshire, I decided to ask Mr Howell for his opinion on the state of public transport locally. 

“I hoped to establish a sensible dialogue with a view to soliciting more support for these vital public services and was quite surprised to have my own company quoted back at me [as an example].

“I am still hoping that it might be possible to have such a dialogue if people really are serious about this.

“In the meantime, I very much look forward to the utopia Mr Howell describes of driverless buses that run whenever and wherever someone wants them — and are somehow commercially viable!

“I understand the difficulties the county council faces as it is being squeezed by the Government so I’m not saying it should definitely subsidise services like Going Forward. However, it’s a fact that without some kind of help the service won’t be able to continue.”

Mr Howell said he would urge the Government to provide funding for community bus services as part of its comprehensive spending review and urged Mr Ward to do likewise.

He said: “The provision of smaller community buses is the way forward as the notion of larger ones trundling around the countryside while mostly empty is economic madness. We are at the crossroads of a number of trends that will change the dynamics and economics of the industry.

“In the meantime, I recognise that there is tremendous potential for isolation in our villages, particularly among the elderly, and I would hope that money could be made available in the spending review based on the genuine social need fulfilled by buses.

“Cutting the bus subsidies in Oxfordshire was a difficult step but it was the right thing to do and any future subsidies should be considered on a case-by-case basis to meet specific requirements.

“In some cases, it could be seen as part of the public health budget because those services help people to get out and socialise.”

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