After the council's inquiry day last month I was very hopeful that the awful prospect of bus operators being forced to withdraw lots of services had been averted. Unfortunately, I reckoned without Cornwall Council.
At that meeting we seemed to come to a sort of consensus about the need for the council to talk to bus companies about the thorny issue of concessionary fare reimbursements (ie how much money we give them to carry bus pass holders). All sides seemed to accept that there needed to be long and complex talks and the impact of any decision needed to be carefully worked out. At that time it seemed there was unlikely to be any real change before next April.
And then someone stuck their size 12s into the debate and demanded that as much cash be saved this year as possible. So instead of lots of complex talks, all discussions with the bus companies on the reimbursement rate have been stopped and the council has decided to try to impose a solution as soon as possible. If they are lucky, they might save £200,000 this way. That's part of a £2.2 million shortfall that they identified back in February and failed to tell councillors about or do anything until July.
The price to be paid for saving this money is a complete loss of trust with bus operators and the real risk that the routes will be cut in any case. And we still don't know how the great big hole in the budget was allowed to sit there for so long.
As for the impact of this decision - another big unanswered question. MK's Andrew Long said that it was like someone cutting off your legs and then telling you that if they did so you would be unable to walk. We sort of need to know the outcome before the irrevocable decision is taken. So rather than a high level equality impact assessment now and the details in January, we would like the postpone the decision until we know the effects. Unfortunately the decision is set to be taken next Wednesday.
And what will be the effect? The Council appear to have plucked a new reimbursement rate of 50% out of the air (you can tell because it is a suspiciously round number) and the operators have already said they cannot operate some routes with this rate. So they will be likely to give the statutory notice period that they are axing those buses. I suspect that many routes in and around the rural areas of North Cornwall will be among those to go.
Today's meeting did agree some useful bits and pieces (although we have to wait and see how many survive cabinet). We have asked that the changes be delayed until a re-tendering of the entire bus network happens. This is not because we really support the re-tendering. I suspect most members don't really understand the likely effects. But re-tendering will cause a big upheaval and we don't want to force two within a matter of three months. We also asked for buses to be considered a top priority for any spare cash. But there a number of other calls on new funding and the Conservative led administration seems to think the best answer at a time when buses (and other services) are being cut is to stick another £7 million in reserves.
Today's meeting was very useful - if only to remind us of just how little some within the administration appear to value our bus network. We move on to next Wednesday when the decision will be taken.