Furious campaigners have criticised the county council for agreeing nearly £2m of bus cuts which they say will “sentence them to a lifetime of loneliness and despair”.
North Yorkshire County’s Council’s (NYCC) executive agreed on Tuesday to cut subsidies for nearly 180 buses across the county, axing funding for some services, reducing others, and introducing higher fees for school children.
They agreed the measures in the wake of massive funding cuts from central Government, despite impassioned pleas from dozens of pensioners who had travelled across North Yorkshire to speak at the meeting.
“I realise that we will not satisfy everyone,” said county council chairman John Weighell. “But we will do the best we can to mitigate the problems caused by this.
“We have been obliged to take decisions such as this to avoid setting a deficit budget, but at the same time we are determined to do everything possible to minimise the impact on individuals.”
The raft of proposals, detailing £1.7m of possible savings options , was first laid out last July with the aim of identifying £1.1m worth of cuts.
The executive has now said that, with additional procurement savings, it can make that sum up to around £2m.
Councillors were asked to consult on four ways of cutting subsidies -
Performance - Axing funding for bus services where the subsidy per passenger is greater than £6, or where journeys carry less than three passengers.
Frequency - Dropping the number of services to no more than two an hour in some areas.
Town services - Cutting subsidies for services where the average journey is less than 1.5km - calling instead for people to walk, cycle or get a taxi.
Schools - Cutting subsidies for children travelling to a ‘preferred’ school, and introducing minimum fares of £1 per journey for those not entitled to free transport.
A consultation, which ran from August to November last year, attracted more than 2,000 responses - with 15 separate petitions securing more than 5,880 signatures.
The results showed that a third of campaigners - 36 per cent - were most concerned about the town centre cuts which they say would leave them isolated and vulnerable.
Outraged campaigners had even hired mini-buses to attend Tuesday’s meeting, calling on the executive to reconsider these ‘devastating’ cuts.
“This is going to cause real hardship,” said one elderly man. “I was horrified to learn what was going to happen. It’s been referred to as the Beeching cuts of this year. Certainly it is.
“And just like the Beeching cuts of all those years ago, we are to end up with the same problems. And we will be looking back and asking why we got it so wrong.”
Many of those at the meeting were most concerned at plans to axe subsidies for town centre buses.
But campaigners at Tuesday’s meeting voiced deep concern at these proposals, saying it was impossible for many to walk 1.5km.
“Removing these services will sentence the majority of these people to a lifetime of isolation and despair,” said one man.
Speaker Ruth Annison added: “The consultation has brought home the life-changing cost - some people will now require residential care.
“There’s great anxiety, indeed dread and desperation, in many places, as to what the future holds.”
Many of those people that used the buses were aged in their 80s and 90s, said campaigners.
“It is their absolute lifeline,” said one woman. “They can’t walk. They can’t cycle. These people have got nothing - and you’re taking that away.”
One woman, aged 91, said she now had no hope of independence.
“We will be stranded in our own homes,” said Edna Brownbridge. “This is my lifeline - without it I am going to be devastated.”
Many of those at the meeting called on NYCC to consider changes for the concessionary fares scheme which allows free travel to pensioners.
Seventy per cent of those that use North Yorkshire’s buses are aged over 70, therefore entitled to free travel at a cost of £8m to the public purse.
But, said the executive, they had been firmly told by Government there was no way to charge for this free service.
A spokesman said the council is now looking to work with community transport groups to mitigate the impact.
The executive has also agreed to lobby Government about the concessionary fares scheme, and it is also to investigate alternative funding from parish councils.
It is also to carry out an in-depth review of local bus services to establish how they could be more “sustainable”.
County Coun Carl Les, NYCC executive deputy leader, said: “We are all very conscious of the potential that these reductions have for people in very rural areas, in terms of isolation and loneliness.
“We will do all we can to mitigate against them.”