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Fenland Council accuses Mayor Johnson of ‘crumbs from the table’ bus service funding

Cllr Steve Count said the ‘strategy’ being offered by the Combined Authority was in reality a ‘wish list’

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Mayor Dr Nik Johnson has been warned that his promises of better public transport for cut little ice with the people of Fenland. The district council passed a motion calling on the mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to up his game on bus provision “to address the needs of residents of Fenland”.

Whittlesey councillor Dr Haq Nawaz tabled a motion to this week’s Fenland Council meeting claiming the “proposed changes to bus services in Fenland are not commensurate with the needs of rural communities of the district.

“Such lack of public transport contributes to social isolation, inability to take full advantage of educational and employment opportunities, and to take care of the health needs of the residents”.

He said the Local Transport and Connectivity Plan (LTCP) fell short of short of its own commitment to ‘make transport more accessible to everyone’.

Council leader Cllr Chris Boden (left) at the Fenland District Council election count.

Dr Haq Nawaz (centre) at the Fenland District Council election count in May last year. Picture by Terry Harris.

And he warned that the “three-fold increase in the Mayoral precept to £36 to pay for the wholly inadequate bus service ‘improvements’ cannot be justified or supported”.

The motion was carried by 33 votes to 1, with 1 abstention.

Some of the strongest language opposed to the precept and the lack of provision for Fenland, came from Cllr Steve Count.

Outlining his opposition to the increased precept he said “we’re told the £36 is to improve bus services.

“I’m going to use the word poppycock because I’m not allowed to use the words I’m thinking.”

He said the precept had only been introduced because Mayor Johnson failed to get bus improvement money from the government. Indeed, he said, we were the only combined authority in the country left out of the government allocation.

And he blamed a “lack of imagination” by Mayor Johnson for the failure.

“If we had put a decent plan in front of government we would have got funding, and the local people would not have been taxed in this way so that’s why I say poppycock.”

Cllr Count said the ‘strategy’ now being forward by the Combined Authority was in reality a “wish list.

“We want earlier trains, early buses, later buses and we want buses to be clean and tidy.”

Cllr Steve Count: How could it be right, he said, to subsidise early routes for example around Cambridge “while you leave whole villages with no support at all”

Cllr Steve Count: How could it be right, he said, to subsidise early routes for example around Cambridge “while you leave whole villages with no support at all” PHOTO: Terry Harris

The current plans “named everything possible for a fantastic all singing all dancing bus network, but they didn’t put any plan in”.

Ultimately all that is being offered to Fenland “is the crumbs of the table, simple bolt ons dotted around in no coordinated way”.

Cllr Count questioned bus changes at Christchurch and Chatteris and a link to Manea station but said no parishes had been consulted and felt this should have been done to ensure they received the type and level of service needed.

He also referred to Turves near Whittlesey “a decent sized village” but still left without a bus service.

How could it be right, he said, to subsidise early routes for example around Cambridge “while you leave whole villages with no support at all.

“That’s because there was no strategy to match this against – it was a raid on people’s pockets and then it was a spending spree trying to deliver as much as you can,” he said.

He added: “The last thing I want to talk about is the dishonesty about what it actually delivers because whilst this was absolutely the mayor’s decision and nobody else’s to have a precept, all the money goes through the ringer together, so he says I’m raising this tax and I’m going to deliver bus services.

“In the meantime, he spent the other money on subsidizing under 25s from £2 down to£1 – some people might think that’s a good idea, £3.85 million to subsidise 25-year-olds to go out and about, one pound instead of two pounds.

“But how would I explain to a pensioner in Turves that have had their pensions raided for £36 a year that doesn’t get a bus service that they are now subsidising a 23-year-old who’s finished university in a good job in the centre of Cambridge that they can go home after a night out at midnight.

“How can I justify that because I can’t. I’ll bet your damn dollar mayor Nick Johnson will never answer that question but it’s one I’d like to ask.”

Cllr James Carney, a former Stagecoach driver, claimed bus services across Fenland were disjointed – in particular, he queried the difficulty of anyone trying to get from Chatteris to Wisbech without having to change at March.

He said that recently he spoke to a lady in Chatteris with mobility issues who was unable to use an eye clinic at Wisbech because of the lack of public transport.

“She highlighted exactly what’s wrong with this area when it comes to public transport,” he said.

Cllr Carney argued that franchising buses had been “a game changer” in London “and I don’t know why franchising hasn’t been mentioned by the CPCA in recent months”.

never answer that question but it's one I'd like to ask.” Cllr James Carney, a former Stagecoach driver, claimed bus services across Fenland were disjointed

Cllr James Carney, a former Stagecoach driver, claimed bus services across Fenland were disjointed

Cllr John Clark said it was not the fault of Mayor Johnson and years ago, when he was Conservative councillor, bus services were in decline partly due to reduced government support.

He said Mayor Johnson had taken over the Combined Authority and found it “poorly set up and with a high turnover of staff” but they had turned the corner and now with a new and experienced chief executive by his side they were about to “deliver for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough”.

He said the mayoral precept increase “was not the sole decision of the mayor but was democratically voted through by the Combined Authority board

“I am led to believe the Fenland member did not vote or speak on this but left the meeting after about an hour and was not replaced by a deputy.”

Cllr Clark said: “The mayor Dr Nick Johnson said in the press release following this decision we will be able to offer more routes more frequently with services serving far more people more conveniently than is currently the case.

“Rather than keep playing politics as we’ve done in this meeting and previous meetings with the Combined Authority, perhaps it is time to engage with them for the benefit of Fenland.”

Cllr Sam Hoy said: “I’m not saying that the previous mayor was perfect – I’m not sitting here defending him at all-, but I don’t think that anyone can say in good conscious that Dr Nik has delivered for Fenland people at all, thank you.”

Cllr Gary Christy began with a reminder that he a trustee and chairman of FACT community transport, and they deliver a number of services for the Combined Authority.

He supported the motion since he had seen services in Fenland provided by Stagecoach rapidly decline but said the problem goes back to the Combined Authority’s failure to secure any funding from the government during the 2022 spending round.

Cllr Christy then listed some of the other combined authorities and the millions they had received whilst locally we received nothing.

“The explanation given was that the CPCA’s bid was not ambitious and lacked innovation,” he said.

Cllr Christy said: “The motion states the local transport connectivity plan especially for Fenland continues to lack ambition and innovation and goes nowhere near addressing the needs of Fenland.

“Fenland is not receiving its fair share of the available funding for the proposals that have been put forward for the district.

“Many of those proposals are to extend existing routes just making those routes more unviable for passengers to use. So, while the LTCP continues to lack ambition Innovation we will continue to see empty double decker buses driving across Fenland as the services are not fit for purpose and need to change.

“This is all at the cost of the taxpayer as the operators continue to be paid even if their buses are empty and we continue to hear stories of how some subsidised services have a cost per passenger journey of £124.76 and £74.

“How could this be considered value for money and even the high demand responsive transport options are running up to £42.31 per passenger journey.”

He said the Combined Authority benchmark was £13.40.

Cllr Christy said FACT had taken over the March 33a route which proved “that with innovation and adapting the service of the needs of the passenger this can be achieved”.

He concluded: “Fenland bus services need to grow in quality, frequency, and coverage so this generation can access employment and further education.

“It’s all right to declare a £1headline for under 25 but what use is that if there aren’t any bus services to use.”

 

 

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson: ‘I am absolutely committed to improving buses. They are the lifeblood of our community. But we also need your help. The more frequently you use the buses, the more commercially viable they become, and we can reduce our subsidies’.

Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority Mayor
Dr Nik Johnson

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