People in the Yorkshire Dales are bidding to take over managing their local bus services as routes face major cuts. Mark Holdstock reports.
If North Yorkshire County Council gets its way, devastation awaits public transport running to some of the county's most popular tourist destinations.
"We are faced with a crisis, the withdrawal of all Sunday and bank holiday bus services," says Colin Speakman, chairman of the Yorkshire Dales Society.
He is also the chairman of the Dales & Bowland Community Interest Company which manages several Sunday bus services within the Yorkshire
Community interest companies are a bit like the traditional mutual building societies, and this one is owned by the Yorkshire Dales Society, a charity.
For many local buses running on Sundays and bank holidays, it is the community interest company, rather than the county council, that decides where those buses run and when and how they are marketed.
These community-managed services, with a strong ethos of local decision-making, are what many see as an example of David Cameron's "Big Society" at work.
But the local people managing some of the buses in the Dales face the prospect of losing three-quarters of the funding they get from various local authority bodies which subsidise the services.
Changes are also being proposed in the way that community transport services are provided.
These are services for people who are ill, or can't afford transport to hospitals, or to day-care centres, or where there are no public bus services. Those who operate these buses fear that a 2m investment in infrastructure to run them is under threat.
"This is catastrophic because we've had huge success with the community interest company in getting people back on the buses," says Colin Speakman.
He adds that by increasing passenger numbers, they have reduced the subsidy the buses require by about 4 a journey – over half the previous figure.
"We've more than doubled the number of people using the Sunday and bank holiday services to places like Malham, Grassington, Kettlewell and Hawes."
It's not just the Yorkshire Dales services facing cuts. Lyn Costelloe, chief executive of the Little Red Bus Company, a community-based operator which runs services through a wider area, says the cuts will affect the whole county and beyond.
"There's going to be less money in rural transport over all," she says. "Not only Dales and Bowland and their fund are losing out. The total transport network in the Dales is being threatened."
Colin Speakman is hoping for a change of heart by the county council, the major funder of these services. If not, the Sunday and bank holiday buses will vanish just before Easter – one of the busiest tourist weekends of the year. He points out that every person who makes a trip into the Dales by bus spends, on average, about 13 during their outing.
"Last year, we carried just over 20,000 passenger journeys. This year, we've already passed last year's total with three or four months of the financial year still to count, so we'll be pushing towards 24,000-25,000."
Faced with the collapse of the service, he has come up with a radical solution. He wants an alliance of local groups, including his community interest company, to receive funding direct from the Government's newly announced Local Sustainable Transport Fund.
"It's a three- or four-year fund which the Government is giving to local communities, in partnership with local authorities. But we need to include weekday services and not just leisure services."
In essence, it would mean local people and local organisations, who call themselves the Dales Integrated Transport Alliance, becoming the new managers of some weekday and Sunday village bus services.
They would still work with the county council through whom the money would be channelled. They say that if they win the bid, they would be more effective, saving money without cutting services.
One of the partners is the Little Red Bus Company. Lyn Costelloe believes they would be able to cut out duplication. "We've got to break down the barriers," she says. "There's a pot of money in education, social care, non-emergency health and a huge pot of money here for transport, all doing it independently."
Colin Speakman explains that several buses, run by different council departments and other public bodies, such as the NHS, often travel on the similar routes. He wants to see a single bus which would be used to take people to hospital appointments, by social services to take people to day centres, or for schoolchildren, or shoppers.
"What we're trying to do is to integrate the tourism aspects with essential services that people need."
Other partners in the alliance include the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Welcome to Yorkshire, Yorkshire Dales Public Transport Users' Group, Harrogate Friends of the Earth and the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line.
One innovation proposed under the bid is the creation of several local hubs, such as Grassington, Settle, Pateley Bridge, Ripon, Leyburn, Hawes and Reeth. This is where the medium-distance buses (or, in the case of Settle, trains) from conurbations will arrive. It's where passengers will transfer to local buses serving small villages, farms and tourist attractions.
"Local people and local businesses will sit down and decide what's happening to their local services and how they can improve them," adds Lyn Costelloe.
"They can decide whether there's going to be a late bus to take youngsters into town, or to the clubs, if they want extra services. They may have to raise the money themselves."
What matters to her is that a system like this would put local communities in the driving seat. It will give them power and responsibility.