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Stagecoach to cut buses across Canterbury, affecting villagers and Spires Academy pupils

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Drastic cuts to school and village bus services have sparked outrage from hundreds of passengers.

Operator Stagecoach is axing a range of "vital" services across the Canterbury district - which residents say will "isolate" communities.

Families living in the Canterbury district are outraged by Stagecoach's planned bus cuts
Families living in the Canterbury district are outraged by Stagecoach's planned bus cuts

Several villages will be left without any buses, while a service ferrying schoolchildren from Herne Bay and Whitstable to Spires Academy in Canterbury is also set to be slashed.

Stagecoach says it has taken the "very tough decision" due to factors including an ongoing driver shortage, and a drop in passenger numbers since the pandemic.

But residents have slammed the cuts - which are to come into effect on June 5 - as "ridiculous", saying they will leave many people stranded and children without a way of reaching school.

Kent County Council (KCC) says "alternative transport" will be provided to pupils eligible for free school travel, when the 921 and 922 bus services linking Whitstable and Herne Bay with Spires Academy on school days are axed.

But it is understood those not eligible for free transport - which is given to secondary pupils who live a certain distance from their nearest schools, and those from low-income families - will be left to find their own way to school.

Stagecoach is cutting a number of 'vital' bus services across the Canterbury district. Stock picture
Stagecoach is cutting a number of 'vital' bus services across the Canterbury district. Stock picture

Angry parents have blasted the decision as "totally unfair".

One mum said: "This has been done after school places have been accepted. Many of us chose the school partly on the basis of safe dedicated school buses being available, despite the expense.

"How do KCC suggest we get children to school in September? It is an absolute joke."

Another parent said the cuts will cause "unnecessary hardship", adding: "If people work, how on earth are they supposed to get their children to school?"

Meanwhile, hundreds have hit back at Stagecoach's plan to leave some villages without bus services.

The number 7 bus currently runs between Herne Bay and Canterbury from Monday to Saturday, providing a key service for residents in villages such as Broad Oak and Hoath.

But from June 5 it will only run on a short route between Herne Bay station and Altira Park in Herne Bay, on Saturdays and bank holidays.

Meanwhile, the 27 bus running between Canterbury city centre and the village of Rough Common is also being withdrawn.

A petition calling on Stagecoach to reconsider has now amassed hundreds of signatures.

It was launched by mum-of-two Karen Johncock, who said: "(The number 7) connects residents in the villages to schools, the hospital, railway station, the shops, doctors surgeries, work and other urgent services.

Parents say the planned cuts would affect families across Canterbury and Herne Bay
Parents say the planned cuts would affect families across Canterbury and Herne Bay

"This decision affects residents in Beltinge, Reculver, Hillborough, Castle Chase, Maypole, Knaves Ash, Hoath, Sturry and Broad Oak.

"We may only be small communities but our need for this bus route is vital to the health and wellbeing of all residents."

She adds that the cuts will affect "the most vulnerable in our communities including the elderly who have no access to other means of transport" as well as young people, at a time of soaring fuel prices.

"This decision isolates a number of communities," she said.

"It means the village of Reculver will be completely cut off, as will Maypole and Hoath. Elderly residents in Broad Oak will also lose their only transport link.

"This is totally detrimental to green policies on getting people out of their cars and onto public transport. It also discriminates against the most vulnerable in our society."

City councillor Rachel Carnac says she is also "really concerned" about the cuts.

"We all know that Covid has had a massive impact on people travelling by bus, and this has negatively impacted Stagecoach's revenue, but this seems a premature decision," she said. "Let's hope there are alternative providers who can step forward."

Her concerns were echoed by Lib Dem Cllr Alex Ricketts, who represents Rough Common.

"Although I understand Covid has hit bus use, this is a vital service for many and should be preserved if at all possible," he said.

"KCC has scaled back on its support for bus routes at a time when people are starting to get out more, and the short term savings will have a negative long term effect.

"People who are able will drive instead of getting the bus, adding to congestion and pollution, but those with no alternative could lose a vital link to the city.

"A couple of residents have already told me the end of this service will mean a trip into town will become a much less regular event for them."

How will children reach school?

Kent County Council (KCC) says any children entitled to free school travel will receive a replacement service, following the cuts.

It is understood these services will be "as efficient as possible", although the authority could not confirm whether they will take the form of taxis, or an alternative bus service.

KCC will contact parents in due course to notify them of the new arrangements.

But it is understood those not eligible for free school travel will be expected to find their own way of reaching schools.

A KCC spokesman said: “We acknowledge these amendments are part of a series of changes having to be made by operators in response to some really challenging conditions.

“The pandemic has had a profound impact on the levels of people travelling on public transport and bus use in Kent is estimated currently at only 70% of pre-pandemic levels.

“At the same time, costs relating to fuel and wages are also increasing which is making a number of these services unsustainable.

“The council understands why these decisions have to be made but is concerned about the impacts on users particularly those without alternative transport and school children.

"Children entitled to free travel to school will be provided with alternative transport. Regrettably Kent County Council is not in a position to provide financial support for these services.”

Falling passenger numbers and driver shortage to blame

Joel Mitchell, managing director of Stagecoach South East, says rising costs, falling passenger numbers and a shortage of drivers are behind the cuts.

"Reducing services goes completely against our instinct," he said.

Stagecoach South East’s managing director Joel Mitchell
Stagecoach South East’s managing director Joel Mitchell

"We want to regenerate our customer base and bring people back to bus as quickly as possible so we can expand our network, but before we can do that, we've got to make some really difficult decisions for the short-term.

"We've done everything we can to protect services throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, but we're now faced with a very challenging set of circumstances.

"People's travel patterns have changed and despite more people coming back to using public transport, less people are travelling than before the pandemic.

"Our baseline costs have increased significantly too, which means that some services that previously struggled to cover their operating costs are now unsustainable.

"Added to this, bus operators across the country are faced with a significant vacancy gap caused by a shortage of qualified drivers and engineers. This situation has begun to improve here with a good response to our local recruitment campaign, but there remains a shortfall of drivers which continues to have an impact on our services in the area.

"It's a very tough decision to make because we know the impact it may have on individual people, but by making these changes now, we can ensure that other critical services in the area are continued, and we can operate them more reliably within the scope of our available workforce.

"With the right public policies and investment, buses have a positive long-term future and we remain firmly committed to working with local government to maximise opportunities to deliver good local bus connections for the community."

Visit the petition here.

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