The leader of Oxfordshire County Council says he can give no guarantee that Long Wittenham will have more buses next year – but he has pledged to work hard to bring about improvements to the service.
Ian Hudspeth met parish councillors and three villagers to discuss the decline since last December of Service 97. The county council subsidised service to Didcot was reduced from six buses a day to two with only one viable service involving a four-hour wait at Didcot for a return bus.
Thames Travel said the service even with financial support lost money. The parish council and villagers were angry with the reduced service and lack of consultation and sought a meeting with Mr Hudspeth to air their grievances.
Mr Hudspeth told the meeting that a review of all bus services in the county was underway and new services would come into operation next May. He urged the parish council to set out their case for an improved service.
Asked if he could give a guarantee that the village would get a better bus service Mr Hudspeth replied: “No. I cannot do that and raise expectations. It would be easy for me to give you a promise now but there are many aspects that have to be considered in our review of all services.
“But what I can guarantee is that after hearing your concerns I and my colleagues and staff will work hard to get the best possible service we can for Long Wittenham.”
Mr Hudspeth said that millions of pounds ever year were spent on bus service subsidies, concessionary fares to help pensioners and school transport. More than £3.5m alone went on concessionary fares over which they had no control because it was Government policy.
Councillor Ann Tomline raised her concerns about the abrupt withdrawal of service and said she was surprised that Thames Travel did not have to comply with a notice of withdrawal. County councillor Lynda Atkins said the council had to act quickly or face the prospect of having no service at all.
Mrs Tomline raised the prospect of a Dial-a-Ride service that operated in some northern counties. Mr Hudspeth said such counties received higher Government subsidies because they were considered to be in deprived areas whereas Oxfordshire was not.
Villager pensioners Don Caws and Vic and Gill Lester spoke of the hardships and the isolation a reduced bus service caused elderly people and those who did not own a car. Mr Caws said a return taxi fare to Didcot cost £24 and was too expensive for people on low incomes. Mr and Mrs Lester spoke of their difficulties in getting to and from Didcot, concerns expressed to them by many villagers. They wanted to see any new contract awarded to the previous operators of the service Whites instead of Thames Travel.
The chairman of the parish council Tom Bowtell drew Mr Hudspeth’s attention the council’s work in preparing a Neighbourhood Plan including a new village hub for a school, village hall, affordable houses and possible shop. He spoke about the impact Didcot’s expansion would have on traffic through the village, the need for a new cycleway and path to Clifton Hampden and the village’s concerns about a quarry and concrete plant proposed near Clifton Hampden.
Mr Bowtell thanked Mr Hudspeth for visiting the village to hear views about the bus service and other issues vital to the future direction of the village. He added: “It was a very useful opportunity for the council to impress upon Mr Hudspeth our deeply held convictions about important issues facing the village.” Mr Hudspeth said: “It was a very valuable meeting and I will be reporting back about the worries you have over the bus service and other issues. Now I have a much better understanding of your concerns.”