In Dover and Deal we have seen the chaos, confusion and overcrowding caused by Stagecoach's poorly thought-through changes to bus services earlier this year. They rushed the changes through a two-week consultation and we have been working hard ever since to get them to reverse some of their decisions. I'm pleased that in a number of cases they have listened – and U-turned on changes to services in places like St Radigunds and Kingsdown.
Yet we cannot have a repeat of that disruption. That's why last week I organised a letter, signed by 10 other Kent MPs, to Kent County Council (KCC) leader Paul Carter. The letter set out our serious concerns over the council's plans to cut subsidies to 78 bus services across the county. These services are vital for elderly people, allowing them to get into towns to go shopping, visit relatives or attend doctor appointments. Schoolchildren, disabled people and low earners also face being cut off.
Everyone knows KCC and councils across the land have had to make considerable savings in recent years. This is because back in 2010 our nation was faced with the highest budget deficit in decades. Yet KCC need to explore other practical options that avoid cutting these vital bus services.
Bus users already feel hard done by. Many are understandably concerned that – within months of a 15% pay increase for councillors – more services are set to be axed. Indeed, by Friday more than 9,000 people had already signed a petition calling for KCC to reverse these planned cuts. Understandably, people are worried about how they will get to work – or how their children will get to school. It is vital the council listens to these concerns.
No-one wants to see their council tax go up. That's why KCC has been working so hard to make savings. With the proposed bus service subsidy cuts, the council is seeking to make a 70% reduction in its current budget. Elsewhere, Norfolk County Council has started consulting on proposals to reduce bus subsidies by £500,000 and Cheshire East Council has plans to save £1 million. People I've spoken to in Dover and Deal feel KCC's cuts of £4 million seem extreme and I strongly sympathise with their concerns.
In some areas the cuts to subsidized buses will cause significant disruption and place extra pressure on other services that are already crowded at peak times. We have already seen the problems caused by Stagecoach. People are worried that further reductions by KCC create a real risk of people having to give up work, that elderly people will be isolated and children will be unable to travel to school.
That's why KCC must listen now to the serious concerns being raised – particularly regarding school routes. People in Dover and Deal rely on these services. KCC need to rethink their plans.
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