On 18 August there was a startling development in the campaign to save Kent’s rural bus services, brought about by one Green and one LibDem KCC councillor.
Country-dwellers need buses
Currently, bus users and parents of school-age bus users are up in arms because all the Conservative KCC councillors voted through cuts to bus subsidies on 10 February. With letters sent home at the end of term from schools about bus cuts due to happen in Oct 2022, bus-users woke up to the danger of the situation.
There are commuters, students and elderly non-drivers affected in villages from Sevenoaks in the west to Walmer in the east, Swale East and Dover North being especially affected. Although there is a legal obligation for KCC to fund school transport to a pupil’s nearest school, students who attend a further-away faith school or grammar school are left high and dry.
It was shocking to hear KCC Cllr Steve Manion tell a parish council on Monday 8 August that if parents choose to have their child sit the Kent test, parents have to bear responsibility for getting their child to a more distant school when he and his colleagues decide on cuts to buses.
KCC cabinet member David Brazier has also made statements washing his hands of knock-on effects on families who live in Kent villages. The implications for a rise in road accidents are obvious with more cars doing the school run, and teenagers more tempted to walk on country lanes with no kerbed pavements, on dark afternoons.
With the cost-of-living crisis worsening, these are times when key workers, hard-pushed to run a car to get them to work, eg at care-homes etc., are more likely to need their bus service, not less. If families are squeezed out of East Kent villages, how much worse will the lives of isolated, elderly folks become? Radio Kent’s Julia George did a special phone-in programme on rural bus cuts on Wednesday 10 August (readers can listen again).
Pushing back against budget cut
Green KCC council Rich Lehmann has campaigned hard for a U-turn on this budget cut of £2.2 million including at the KCC committee meeting on 6 July. He was interviewed on the radio programme 10 August and pointed out that KCC could afford to reinstate the bus subsidy for school buses from their reserves, given that the damage to lives and livelihoods in Kent will cost a lot more than the budget savings.
At the KCC Scrutiny committee on 18 August, a motion was proposed by Green KCC Cllr Rich Lehmann, and seconded by LibDem Cllr Mike Sole, for the Conservative bus subsidy cuts to be reviewed. With the very strong case they put, and the many protests from the public, the committee voted 9–2 to postpone the bus cuts and to refer the matter back to full council meeting on 15 September.
All may not be lost
For Kent Conservatives even to consider a U-turn proposed by opposition councillors is very, very unusual. Usually, they are a law unto themselves. But the battle to save Kent’s rural bus services is not yet won.
All worried bus users are urged to email KCC cabinet members before 5 September to make their views known. Key Conservative cabinet members are: Roger Gough, Peter Oakfield, Shellina Prendergast, David Brazier, Bryan Sweetland, Dan Watkins.
Other persons to email are Conservative KCC councillors elected in the ward where you live. A new Kent-wide KCC petition is to be launched this week. Campaigners are urged to look out for it.
Statement from Councillor Lehmann
After the Scrutiny meeting on 18 August, Cllr Rich Lehmann said,
“I am delighted and surprised in equal measure at the outcome of today’s meeting. To have such strong support for our cause from so many of the Conservative councillors on the committee underlines the fact that people power works. If enough residents contact their elected representatives about issues like this to show opposition, they have the power to change opinions.”
“I hope that next month’s full council meeting will give these cuts the scrutiny they deserve in light of the hugely challenging times households across Kent are now facing. These buses are relied upon by some of the most vulnerable residents across Kent. It would be reckless to push ahead with the cuts when there are still so many unanswered questions about how much the council will actually save and what the carbon impact will be.”
As author, my personal view is that if KCC do decline to take responsibility for the bus services we need now and in the future, it may be time for local councils in Kent to work together and get community-owned bus services up and running, like Manchester’s Andy Burnham is doing. A similar view was put to KALC, the Kent Association of Local Councils, recently by the clerk of Walmer Town Council, Richard Styles, a very knowledgeable campaigner for public transport.