“Need to sign on? You’ll have to walk 24 miles to the jobcentre”

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. …”

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/jan/07/need-to-sign-on-youll-have-to-walk-24-miles-to-jobcentre

More rural bad news: “Bus travel: Fewer passengers as funding falls”

Buses are the most common mode of public transport, accounting for 60% of all trips.

But on the buses, passenger numbers are falling.

There were 9% fewer journeys on local bus services in Britain in the first three months of this financial year than in the same period a decade ago.

The Campaign for Better Transport says this is partly down to cuts to the amount local authorities England and Wales are spending on buses.

In the past seven years, council spending on buses has fallen by 45%, according to figures released to the campaign group under the Freedom of Information law.

Outside London, buses are largely run by private companies, which make their money from passenger fares. Then, local councils pay subsidies to plug the gaps, often in rural areas where running a route is more expensive or less lucrative for companies.

Areas where running a bus service is the least lucrative for private operators will rely most on council subsidy – and so be most effected by the cuts.

In 2017-18, there were 11 councils in England that spent nothing at all on running bus services.

This has meant 3,000 routes being reduced or scrapped since 2010-11.

There are significant differences in fares, too.

Between September 2017 and September 2018 in London, fares rose by 0.4% – in the capital, buses are still public and regulated.

In other metropolitan areas in England where fares are left to the free market, there was an average 2.4% increase, while in non-metropolitan areas fares rose by 7.9%.

But if bus cuts and fare rises leave some people unable to get around, don’t councils have a duty to do something about it?

In fact, councils have very few specific obligations around buses, making them an easy target for councils as the cuts bite.

There are specific things they legally have to do, for example provide transport for children otherwise unable to get to school.

They also have to make sure there are concessionary fares for older and disabled people. Although this is partly funded by central government, the grant has been falling, leaving councils to make up the difference.

But other than that, they are not obliged to fund buses and ensure everyone has access to them.

What do councils have to do?

It’s possible a council could be challenged in the courts under equality legislation if it could be shown to be disproportionately restricting certain groups of people.

But legal guidance suggests it would be difficult to challenge a council if it could show it had assessed the needs of a local area and the impact of removing a bus service, particularly on elderly and disabled people.

If after this assessment, councils decide they need to make cuts because of a lack of funds, this would be likely to be legal.

But councils can’t let bus cuts leave a community that needs transport with no transport service at all.

And in some areas, councils have used community transport services – often minibuses driven by volunteers – to fill the gaps.

There could be other reasons for the fall in passenger numbers, though.

For the past couple of years, passenger numbers have also been falling in London, despite its relative protection from cuts.

Mayor Sadiq Khan has suggested this could be driven by fewer people going out, as Netflix and Deliveroo make staying at home easier and more tempting.”

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46524510

Rural high-speed broadband? Better move to Spain or Portugal!

“… Ofcom said fullfibre internet is now available to 1.8m premises, a rise from 3% to 6% of homes and businesses, but the UK is still far behind countries such as Portugal, at 89%, and Spain, at 71%.

The regulator’s report also found that rural areas also face issues with mobile coverage. While 83% of urban homes and offices have so-called “complete” 4G coverage – services from all four major operators, Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three UK – it is a different story in rural areas. Just 41% of rural premises get complete mobile coverage, while Ofcom said that “in some remote parts of the country there is no coverage at all”.l …”

https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/dec/18/uk-homes-slow-broadband-netflix-youtube-ofcom

“Want to shop online? Best have a mobile signal” (so that locks out many rural areas)

“As millions start their Christmas shopping online, there’s a warning that consumers may need to have a mobile phone, and a decent signal, to make sure their transactions go through.

UK banks are starting to introduce a new layer of security, involving passwords sent to your mobile phone.

That could be a problem for hundreds of thousands of householders without a mobile, or no proper signal.

Now banks are being urged to find other ways to check a customer’s identity.
The new rules are part of an EU directive – already adopted by the UK – which is due to come into force by September 2019.

But critics say many people are likely to be inconvenienced.

“Banks are not yet great at looking after people at the margins – because they’re disabled, or because they live with no mobile coverage,” said James Daley, the managing director of Fairer Finance.

“These systems are designed for the 95% – while the remaining 5% are hung out to dry.” …

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-46399707

Penalised if you live near small branches of big supermarkets

“If you’ve ever suspected that popping into your local supermarket rather than heading to a bigger superstore is damaging your wallet, then your hunch is correct.

Big brands are cashing in on the convenience and accessibility of their in-town locations and charging around £10 more per shopping trolley.

The BBC investigation looked at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose and found huge variations in prices. For example, in a regular Tesco you would pay 9p for a banana versus 25p in express stores.

The supermarkets say that the price difference is due to the higher cost of running the smaller branches, but the findings offer food for thought for customers who are deciding where to pick up their shopping.

Not only are the bananas pricey but the investigation found Tesco customers would pay 91p for a bag of mixed peppers in a superstore versus a hiked price of £1.15 in the store closer to their door.

In Marks & Spencer, a banana in a regular store costs 18p versus 40p in their local stores, while red seedless grapes are £2 versus £2.80 in a local branch.

And this all has a big impact on your total bill. At Marks & Spencer the same trolley of shopping cost £103.26 at the Birmingham High Street store and £112.44 at Simply Food in Birmingham New Street Station.

Even some branded products, like Mr Kipling’s French Fancies, varied in price depending on the size of store. In Sainsbury’s the cheaper location charged £1.60 versus £1.95 in the smaller, pricier shop.

Shops were visited between September and October this year, and prices were analysed. At Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer stores in Birmingham, and Waitrose shops in Shropshire, 45 of 50 items cost more in the convenience location. And at the Tesco Express, 39 of 50 items cost more than in the superstore.

Although the big chains say the varied pricing is a business decision based on overheads at different locations, for those customers who are not able to access larger facilities out of town (for example, if they don’t have a car), the impact is real.”

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/supermarkets-hike-up-prices-in-local-branches_uk_5bf2914be4b0f32bd58b37aa

Two-thirds of bank branches have closed in the last 30 years

“A Which? survey has revealed the UK has lost two-thirds of its bank branches in the past 30 years.

The consumer group found there were 7,586 bank branches currently operating compared with 20.583 in 1988. …

… Which? money expert Gareth Shaw told the FT: “We can’t stop tech disrupting traditional models of banking.

“But this is happening at such a pace, we are concerned some people are being disenfranchised and excluded from accessing finance.”

https://www.insider.co.uk/news/uk-bank-closures-rbs-scotland-13598672

Government “Landscapes Review” call for evidence on AONBs and National Parks

“Overview

The Government has asked for an independent review of England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). You can find more about the work of the review and our Terms of Reference. Already the review team, led by Julian Glover and a panel with a range of experiences and interests, has carried out visits and meetings in many parts of England.

We will do more in the months ahead – but we want everyone to have a chance to contribute, whether you live in a National Park or AONB, run a business in them, enjoy visiting, care about landscapes and biodiversity, or represent an organisation with views that might shape and improve our findings. The questions (available as a list in the related documents section below) are a guide: please do not feel you must answer them all – or have to write at great length. We have not set a word length on answers, as we know some people and organisations will want to reply in detail on specific points. However, we ask that where possible you keep each individual answer to no more than 500 words. It is not necessary to reply to every question so please ignore those which you do not think relevant to you. You may find it easier to write your answers elsewhere before pasting them into the text boxes in the link below: …”

https://consult.defra.gov.uk/land-use/landscapes-review-call-for-evidence/