Clashes in council meeting over park and ride cuts

First published in News

A LAST-DITCH bid to prevent public transport being slashed in Worcestershire failed yesterday after bad-tempered clashes between councillors.

An urgent meeting was held at County Hall to examine the implications of scrapping Worcester's two park and rides and scaling down bus routes, during which:

- County council officers were accused by one Labour councillor of running an "unprofessional" consultation, which led to the Tory leadership blasting the criticism as "slanderous" and "inaccurate"

- Another councillor claimed Worcestershire is "going backwards" for transport and rapidly falling behind areas like Chester and Shrewsbury

- A petition was brought to the meeting with around 800 signatures on it from park and ride users in Perdiswell

- An attempt to force Councillor John Smith, the cabinet member for transport, to publish a report on the "ways he will communicate" the bus cuts to colleges, employers and tourists was rejected

- A separate bid by Labour councillors to stage an "urgent" in-house review of the consequences of slashing public transport was also thrown out

A panel of councillors sitting on the scrutiny board got together following last week's decision to cut £1.6m from public transport in Worcestershire, meaning park and rides at Perdiswell and Sixways are due to close in September.

Councillor Peter McDonald, Labour group leader, said: "Good transport keeps people moving, gets them to jobs and services and supports businesses.

"To me, to respond to a consultation by saying so many routes will have 'similar' services in place is meaningless.

"This council could be sending hundreds if not thousands of people to the dole queue."

He called the consultation "flawed, unprofessional and unintelligible", claiming businesses and council staff were among those not consulted properly.

But it was firmly rejected by the council, which accused him of "insulting" the officers.

Councillor John Smith, cabinet member for transport and highways, said: "I am extremely concerned about the comments made on the consultation.

"I did an hour long radio interview with an Upton resident and Councillor Alan Amos, went back on there two or three times, did multiple press interviews, notices went on almost every bus route in Worcestershire.

"Nearly 9,000 responses came in, twice as many as any other consultation this council has ever done, so I don't see how you can say it's been flawed."

He said the reason why the final report on the bus cuts, which said 52 of the 97 under-threat routes will continue as 'similar' services from September, is because talks with operators are ongoing.

Cllr Smith also asked the Labour leader to withdraw his comments, calling them slanderous, but he did not.

It was revealed last week, as well as the park and ride decision, that 13 bus routes are being scrapped entirely, 17 will stay the same and the rest face changes including higher fares, timetable alterations or less frequent pick-ups.

During yesterday's debate Cllr Smith said Worcester could not hope to emulate the likes of Oxford, where park and rides are popular.

"You cannot park in Oxford and if you do try it, it's about £15 an hour - our situation is quite different; what we'd like to do and what we can do are two quite different things," he said.

Peter Blake, head of integrated transport, said: "200 cars a day use the Perdiswell park and ride but the Barbourne corridor takes 23,000 vehicles daily.

"Cutting public transport will make a difference but I'd question whether it's significant."

The council was considering scrapping its entire £3 million yearly public transport subsidy, but scaled it down to £1.6 million after the public outcry.

Around 80 per cent of Worcestershire's buses are ran commercially and require no subsidy.

The scrutiny board did agree on one thing yesterday - that Cllr Smith should publish a report on any possible ways park and ride can be "replaced or retained".

They have requested he publishes it "urgently", but it will not stop September's cuts coming in.

ANGRY COUNCILLORS CLASH OVER PARK AND RIDE CUTS

DURING yesterday's debate it emerged that around 800 people have signed a petition Perdiswell's park and ride since last week.

Councillor Paul Denham, from the Labour group, turned up angrily clutching sheets of paper containing reams of names.

During furious clashes with opposition councillors, he said all the spending which has gone into park and ride over the last decade is now "a complete and utter waste of public money".

"I estimate there's about 800 names on this petition and more are coming in," he said.

"A look at the postcodes is very interesting, it shows very few people using it are visitors to the city - we had a couple from Gillingham in Kent and that's about it.

"To me that suggests the county council is just not advertising it enough - the subsidy is already pretty low, 56p per passenger and if more people used it that figure would come down.

"Closing it will have a massive impact on congestion, it will put off tourists and we're already the third most congested city in the UK."

He said people at County Hall "shout from the rooftops about 'world class' Worcestershire", adding "a world class place doesn't force people to drive into its county town".

He also lambasted the decision to scrap funding for the Sixways park and ride, which has left the hospital having to explore options of funding its own service for staff.

He said: "Are we seriously so lacking in joined up thinking that we're expecting the health service to take money away from front line health care so it can get its staff to work?

"If that's the case, it's an absolute disgrace.

His fury provoked criticism from Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors, who said he was "having a rant" despite the decision already being made.

They said the purpose of the meeting was to examine the quality of the consultation rather than go over old ground.

Councillor Tom Wells, a Lib Dem said: "I'm very disturbed by what's taken place - I've heard all sorts of things which appear to be beyond the parameters of this call-in."

Councillor Ken Pollock said the panel had been asked to attend "on false pretences", calling his criticism "irrelevant and invalid".

Councillor John Smith, cabinet member for transport and highways, said: "Anything that one 'takes away' is not ideal, but be we have reduced resources and (in that context) this is an acceptable solution."

The Perdiswell park and ride was used more than 450,000 times a year in 2008, but has declined to last year's low of 274,935, costing £186,000 to run.

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