In an impassioned plea, Cllr Richard John recently urged fellow Monmouthshire councillors to join forces and oppose the Welsh Government's proposed cuts to bus funding. These cuts, set to begin on July 24, could reduce bus services in Wales to a 'skeletal' level.
Cllr John highlighted the severe impact these cuts would have on the community, especially on elderly residents who rely on bus services to combat loneliness and rural isolation. As bus passenger numbers have yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels, the £28 million per year Bus Emergency Scheme, initially introduced to protect bus services during the pandemic, has become even more vital.
The coach and bus operators trade body, Cymru, estimates that between 65 per cent and 100 per cent of services will be cut, disproportionately affecting rural areas. Monmouthshire's bus services, although not profitable, are essential for its residents. Cllr John emphasised that the social aspect of bus travel is invaluable for many residents, with some experiencing the only social interaction they have all week while on the bus.
Cllr John expressed concern over the Welsh Government's commitment to tackling climate change and reducing carbon emissions when their proposal to cut bus funding seems counterintuitive. Encouraging people to use public transport should be a priority, but cutting services will only further embed private cars as the dominant form of transport in Wales.
The motion to oppose the proposed cuts has received support from local authority leaders who have spoken out against them. Cllr John called for an update on whether Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, has accepted the invitation to meet and discuss this urgent issue.
Councillors of all parties are urged to support the motion and send a clear message to the Welsh Government: reconsider the proposed cuts and protect the vital bus services that are integral to the Monmouthshire community. As Cllr Richard John warns, these cuts could have devastating consequences on par with, or even greater than, the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, which dismantled most of the rail infrastructure in Monmouthshire.
Councillor Catrin Maby supported the motion, stating that she and her colleagues have been lobbying for better support for rural bus services since they first took office. Maby acknowledged that the UK bus system is broken and called for a reevaluation of public transport funding to achieve carbon emission targets.
Cllr Frances Taylor also offered her support for the motion, emphasising the need for accessible, affordable, and regular public transport in the region. Councillor Alistair Neill backed the motion as well, stressing the importance of maintaining bus services for the communities around Gilwern, especially if the local GP surgery closes.
Cllr Ian Chandler not only supported the motion but went further, calling for an expansion of bus services in the region. He argued that the current level of service is insufficient to meet the needs of residents, particularly those who cannot drive due to age, disability, or financial constraints. Chandler also highlighted the environmental benefits of improved public transport, suggesting that better bus services could help reduce car usage and save the planet.
Monmouthshire's council members are now working closely with Transport for Wales, the Burns Delivery Unit, and local operators to explore opportunities to protect and improve service provision. These efforts include looking into the potential for changing bus timetables, creating additional network routes, and aligning the existing public bus operating model with the Welsh Government's proposed franchise model.
The united front presented by the Monmouthshire councillors demonstrates a strong commitment to addressing the challenges facing rural bus services and public transport as a whole. With continued collaboration and innovative solutions, the region may be able to not only protect but expand its public transport offerings, making them more accessible and appealing to residents.
Councillor Jan Butler stressed the importance of establishing an integrated network for Monmouthshire in conjunction with the South Wales Metro, pointing out the impact of insufficient public transport on residents' lives.
Councillor Butler highlighted the need for accessible transportation options for residents seeking employment or leisure opportunities in nearby cities like Cardiff. In addition, she called for a more comprehensive approach to transportation planning, citing the need for better train access in her ward, Goitre.
Councillor Louise Brown shared her support, emphasising the significance of bus services in rural areas, particularly for those without personal transport or on limited incomes. She also called for the continuation of emergency funding for public transportation and urged the Welsh Minister to protect existing services.
In his remarks, Councillor Armand Watts suggested that the Italian model of transportation could serve as an example for the Welsh Government. Despite Italy's love of cars, the country has a superior rail and bus infrastructure compared to Wales, which has seen a decline in train travel.
Councillor Catherine Fookes lamented the absence of a train station in the area, which closed in 1959 under a Tory government. As a result, she said, Monmouth residents rely heavily on buses. She called on the Welsh Government to reverse the funding decision and secure the future of local bus services.
Councillor Emma Bryn echoed Fookes' sentiments, emphasising that incorporating sustainable and active travel in the administration's plans could help tackle transport poverty and improve health outcomes, social isolation, and loneliness. Bryn gave her full support to the motion.
Councillor Peter Strong brought attention to the connections between public transport and poverty, arguing that good bus services are essential for those seeking employment and escaping poverty. He urged the council to prioritise combatting poverty by improving and expanding the bus network.
Councillor Richard John concluded the session by thanking all participants for their contributions and expressing gratitude for the cross-party consensus on the issue. He hoped that the council could send a clear message to the Welsh Government about the importance of bus services in their communities.