Cutting funds to some bus services could cost West Sussex County Council more than it saves as it deals with cases of social isolation, councillors have been warned.
The council currently subsidises a number of routes across the county to the tune of £2.57m per year and wants to reduce that as part of ongoing attempts to save £145m by 2021.
The services are vital to local communities but, with few passengers using them, are not commercially viable for the bus companies.
At a meeting of the full council, cllr Kate O’Kelly (Lib Dem, Midhurst) highlighted a ‘lack of transparency in the decision-making process’, calling for all the routes at threat from the proposed cuts to be made public.
She also asked if the county could afford not to subsidise the services.
Dr O’Kelly said: “Many of the bus users on the routes in question are elderly and on low incomes. By losing their bus they lose a key part of their ability to be independent.
“Critically for us, if they become dependent then an elderly person without savings will cost the county council social care budget approximately £547 a week for residential care at current rates.”
Dr O’Kelly told the meeting that if only four of the passengers wound up needing social care, the cost would outweigh the bus route subsidy.
She called on the council to work with all tiers of local government to explore other ways of finding money, adding: “It would be deep folly on purely financial grounds to proceed with these proposals, if in the long run it will cost us a lot more.”
Kirsty Lord (Lib Dem, Hassocks & Burgess Hill South) suggested that West Sussex could follow the example of Lancashire County Council and pump more money into the bus services.
She added: “The very least we can do is to stop, think again, see if we can avoid the cuts and make sure that any cuts to services are a very last resort – and that we understand the impact of those cuts, if we make them.”
While recognising the importance of bus service to more remote communities, Viral Parikh (Con, Bourne) suggested that more work could be done to explore the use of community transport instead.
The final decision will be made by Roger Elkins, cabinet member for highways and infrastructure.
He said: “I wish that people used some of those services more. If we had a few more people on some of these buses they would become more commercially viable.
“Change will have to happen. There will be a reduction in the services that are provided. The extent to where those service changes will take place will be subject to further discussion.”
The council is in discussion with the bus companies about the planned cuts and has refused to list the routes likely to be affected, citing reasons of commercial sensitivity.