A lesson for all rural dwellers unlucky enough to lose a jobm
“Twenty-four miles there and back is one hell of a hike to your local jobcentre. But when Ray Taylor, 56, had his benefits cut for 13 weeks after illness meant he missed an appointment to sign on, he had no option but to get out his walking shoes. He doesn’t have friends with cars to give him a lift, and with no money coming in, he couldn’t pay the £7 bus fare from the small Cambridgeshire town of Ramsey to Huntingdon, where he is registered for benefits. And if he missed signing on again, he would be sanctioned again.
Taylor, a former electrician – he couldn’t afford to update his qualifications after being made redundant and going freelance – is remarkably stoical about what could be a weekly trek. “If you’ve got a 9 o’clock appointment, you have to set off in the early hours to make sure you get there,” he says. There have been “quite a few times” he has set off at two in the morning to avoid penalties for lateness. (“Sanctions” can involve benefits being reduced – or stopped entirely.)
A pre-dawn start in the pitch-black of rural Cambridgeshire with cars and farm lorries rumbling along pavement-less roads doesn’t sound all that safe. Taylor, who survived being homeless in Cambridge for seven years before being housed in Ramsey, smiles as his eyes stream from the cold. “There’ve been a few moments.” The police have picked him up a couple of times and taken him home to ensure his safety, he recalls.
Come the end of March, other Ramsey residents may have to embark on this trudge that is nearly the length of a marathon. That is because the No 30 bus that is the sole public transport link between Ramsey and Huntingdon is due to be cut. The only alternative for anyone without a car will be to beg lifts from friends or family, cycle or find the £40 round-trip taxi fare. It is an impossible sum for anyone on a low income, and even most working people couldn’t find it five days a week.
To experience the route Taylor has walked “oh, maybe 20 or 30 times”, we meet at the more civilised hour of 8am by the decorative wrought-iron bus shelter next to Ramsey’s clocktower. The night before, driving across Cambridgeshire, gusts of wind hurling rain across my windscreen, I begin to dread the walk to come. Morning, however, has dawned bright but chilly. Hoiking our rucksacks on our backs, we pull our hats down and head south out of town. We are accompanied by Steve Corney, the town council’s new mayor, and Jane Sills, the chair of the Ramsey Million Big Local residents group, which has campaigned for the past 18 months against the cutting of the No 30 bus.
“For the people here, the bus means everything,” says Corney over the noise of traffic streaming out of Ramsey. There are no big employers in the town, so there is a daily exodus. “It’s frustrating because when you see it, there’s a lot of people on it.” Corney notes too that housing development means Ramsey’s population of 8,000 is expanding.
We pick up the pace as we reach the edge of town, where Corney peels off. As we march past a long-abandoned RAF station, it is the isolation suffered by older people and teenagers in cut-off rural areas that is on Jane Sills’ mind. James Palmer, the mayor of the new Cambridgeshire and Peterborough combined authority, which is reviewing all the area’s bus routes, will visit Ramsey later this month, and Sills’ group of residents intends to lobby him hard. “He should know by now just how important it is for people on low incomes and for young people that they’re not trapped in a small town with their life chances inhibited,” she says.
Sills has a strong card up her sleeve. As well as marshalling a petition that gained more than 1,000 signatures – and secured a short-term stay of execution for the route – members of her group decided to use some of the Big Local Lottery money they had been awarded to strengthen their case. A report commissioned from the Campaign for Better Transport revealed that the local authority subsidy paid to the bus operator Stagecoach to run the No 30 bus is the lowest of any on the list of proposed route closures in Cambridgeshire.
The report also showed, Sills says, “how Ramsey already compares poorly to other parts of the county” in terms of its access to buses.
If Cambridgeshire’s long-term transport strategy is ratified later this year – it is the new Cambridgeshire and Peterborough combined authority, not Ramsey town council, that will set commissioning policy until 2031 – Ramsey will be cut off from the new “hub and spoke” public transport system. There will be no buses in or out at all.
Ramsey’s residents, of course, are not alone in their plight. The Campaign for Better Transport calculates that since 2010, councils in England and Wales have cut £182m – 45% – from the support they give to bus routes that would otherwise be unsustainable. Some areas have seen particularly harsh cuts: Somerset by 50%, Leicestershire by 72%, North Yorkshire by 81%. In the past year alone, according to the charity’s recent Buses in Crisis report, more than 300 routes have been reduced or withdrawn in England and Wales, and 3,347 since 2010.
“Whole areas are now transport deserts,” says the charity’s chief executive, Darren Shirley. “The people who are the most impacted are those who are most in need of public transport. Jobseekers who are reliant on public transport to get to work. People in poor health who need it to get to hospital.” Buses, he points out, are the only form of transport in England not to have a long-term investment strategy. …”