Buses in the New Forest
As Lead Member for Transport on the New Forest National Park Authority, it delights me that the New Forest Bus Tour has been such a success this year.
Travelling around the New Forest in an open top bus is a great experience. At times, it might be a bit chilly or even wet but it is surely one of the best ways to relax and see the New Forest.
This year, we have been running two routes, with regular stops so that people can hop on and off. Passenger numbers have increased so much that we have been able to extend the period the buses run by an extra 4 weeks, (until October 14th).
The scheme has been such a success that it has been shortlisted for a national award. Hopefully, judges will be impressed by the fact that it enables people to get around the area without the need for a car. It links several tourist attractions and features a GPS activated commentary that enables passengers to learn about the history and culture of the New Forest.
Rather less welcome are planned reductions in the day to day bus services that connect people in living in our rural areas.. When bus services were deregulated nearly thirty years ago, the hope was that competition would lead to better services in all areas. For urban areas, with a lot of passengers, this has proved to be the case. However, there are many parts of the New Forest that are poorly served and for people that cannot drive they can find themselves very isolated.
More worryingly still are places like Tatchbury Mount, just north of Totton. This has a number of facilities, including hospitals. There is a need for staff to get to and from the hospital from early in the morning until late evening. The bus services are also used by patients for trips out into the community, a vital part of adjusting them to normal life as they recover from serious mental health problems. From early next month, the service will be severely depleted as the bus companies switch to routes that they can make more profit from.
It’s a difficult job, trying to persuade Hampshire County Council to provide subsidy to keep rural bus routes running. Like the bus companies, they look at passenger numbers and conclude that it is too expensive to keep particular services running. Of course, little thought is given to the true cost of withdrawing a service, whether it be the social isolation of an elderly person in a rural setting, a low paid Care Worker who can’t afford to run a car, so cannot get to work without a bus, or a patient who needs to get out of a hospital for a couple of hours.
It’s a free market that means we get urban areas where you can get a bus every ten or twenty minutes, but none in a day if you live elsewhere. If politicians are going to deliver a Big Society or even One Nation, this is one example where government needs to intervene to ensure fairness for everyone.