A Reader Writes re Rural Public Transport

Dear Letters Editor,

The residents of Witheridge campaigning for the restoration of their bus service are doing other residents of rural Devon a huge favour by helping focus public attention on the shocking state of local bus services (Can we have our bus back? 1 May – link to their petition here).

With Barnstaple police’s Operation Loki acknowledging speeding drivers as a primary concern of the town’s residents – and Devon and Cornwall, ranked second for speeding offences across England and Wales, witnessing no fewer than 17 serious crashes and 9 fatalities between 1 April-6 May – what better time to fully pedestrianise narrow High Street and for Stagecoach Southwest (SSW) to travel the extra miles and introduce a comprehensive network of buses across North Devon (NDG 24 April)?

Stagecoach Group claims that ‘Our impact is about far more than transport – we support the economy, help cut congestion on our roads, protect our environment and air quality, boost safety on our roads, and contribute to a healthier nation’ (Stagecoach Group, 28 October 2023). Really? Tell that to those rural residents keen to do their bit for a cleaner, greener, local business hub who simply want to go shopping or socialising – or, like Witheridge residents, get to work, college, hospital etc? What’s the point of Barnstaple’s multi-million pound regeneration scheme if it benefits only car-owners/drivers, and does nothing to reduce the numbers of vehicles entering the town? Nothing health- or business-enhancing about that… So what, constituents might ask, is their MP doing about this unacceptable state of affairs? Zilch, it seems. Prolific tweeter and selfie-taker Selaine Saxby is silent on the matter preferring, along with neighbouring Torridge and West Devon MP Geoffrey Cox, to back the proposed Tarka Line rail extension from Barnstaple to Bideford on the grounds that ‘we need to improve connectivity into North Devon’. As noted previously in the Gazette, that won’t benefit the hundreds of their constituents who can’t access even the current Tarka Line stations without a car… As for connectivity into Barnstaple, that’s clearly not on either’s agenda.

Devon County Council has recently been given over £5m from the Department for Transport’s (DfT) Safer Roads Fund for safety improvements on the Barnstaple to Ilfracombe A361, but another £8.3bn – yep, billion – from the now-cancelled northern leg of HS2 is available for further spending on the nation’s roads. So why isn’t Peter Knight, SSW’s managing director, urging his HQ to push for a substantial portion of this to go towards ending the ludicrous situation in which ‘000s of residents in isolated North and West Devon villages have once-weekly access only to a bus (with a two-hour turnaround) to take them to the region’s principal town of Barnstaple? 

Fixing potholes while ignoring the volume and weight of vehicular traffic and the numbers of car-free rural residents just just won’t cut it as a sustainable public-transport policy. While acknowledging the role of climate change, it’s the number and weight of vehicles that damage roads, not villagers stranded in their homes – often without a local shop, let’s not forget. In fairness to Peter Knight, SSW’s MD does seem to be trying to push bus provision up the agenda, recently acknowledging that DfT’s proposal to reduce minimum-age requirements for bus drivers ‘will enable operators potentially to expand services where longer routes are more common as in North Devon’ (NDG 17 April). 

With a general election on the way which the current pro-car ruling party is likely to lose heavily – Ms Saxby may not be sitting comfortably herself – what better time to put North Devon’s rural residents first and make the already strong case for spending central government, tax-payer cash on essential, subsidised bus routes, making the potentially a reality?

Footnote: it seems Ms Saxby had time for an election-day canvassing photo-op in the London borough of Lambeth in support of Harrow councillor and controversial Tory mayoral candidate Susan Hall (@selainesaxby, 2 May). Re-elected for a third term, Mayor Sadiq Khan received his largest majority yet…

Meg Howarth

19a Ellington Street
N7 8PN
Twitter: @howarthm

Jim Hunt

I've been programming computers since the late 60s. In those days they didn't have computers in schools, so we had to build our own. What can I program next? Will I have to build it first?

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