THOUSANDS of people in West Wales could struggle to attend doctors’ appointments, go shopping or get to work when a rural bus service ends this month, worried councillors in Carmarthenshire have said.
The Bwcabus service operates fixed routes and booked journeys in Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, and has grown since launching in Ceredigion in 2009.
But it is due to come to an end on October 31, with the Welsh Government saying it could not continue its financial support for the service because the UK Government had not replaced rural transport funding formerly provided by the European Union.
Councillors from across the chamber urged a rethink during a Bwcabus motion at a meeting of full council, saying residents would be left isolated.
Labour group leader, Cllr Rob James, described public transport in Carmarthenshire as “a disgrace”, and demanded action.
“If we are going to introduce policies like the 20mph (limit) which is, let’s be honest, trying to force people out of their cars, there needs to be an alternative,” he said. “And there isn’t right now.”
Cllr James said he appreciated that the Welsh Government has said it was facing real-term cuts of £900m in 2023-24. He also called on all parties to “get together and shout loudly”, adding: “We need the right to travel.”
The motion was put forward by Plaid deputy leader, Cllr Linda Evans, and fellow cabinet member, Cllr Edward Thomas, an Independent.
It called on the Welsh Government to review its Bwcabus funding decision and, in the meantime, maintain the service until an alternative one was up and running.
Cllr Evans said there were no other rural transport services currently available in the three counties, and that Bwcabus worked.
“It’s heartbreaking and a big concern for users of the service in our rural areas,” she said.
Cllr Evans said she was aware the Welsh Government was looking into a replacement service but that she hadn’t heard anything more concrete.
Independent councillor John James described Bwcabus as a lifeline for the elderly and vulnerable.
“There’s no point having a bus pass if you haven’t got a bus,” he said.
Plaid councillor Hefin Jones said he had attended a health event on October 12, where a Red Cross employee said access to transport was one of the biggest – if not the biggest – barrier to good health in rural areas.
Cllr Ken Howell, also of Plaid, said an elderly lady who lived in Cwmhiraeth – a hamlet in the north of the county – told him that Bwcabus “opened the world for her”.
Labour councillor Shelly Godfrey-Coles said bus passenger numbers had dropped a lot since before Covid and that Wales had been short-changed by not receiving a HS2 funding allocation from Westminster and by Brexit.
“We need to encourage people back on buses,” she said. “This cannot be used as another whip to beat the Welsh Government.”
Fellow Labour member, Cllr Tina Higgins, said it was hypocritical for councillors to pin all of the blame on Cardiff Bay, and that the council should consider increasing its Bwcabus contribution.
“Can we offer more funding, or are we going to be negative about it?” she said.
Plaid council leader Darren Price said there was scope for the Welsh Government to divert money saved from cutting new road-building projects towards public transport but that, in his view, it hadn’t happened.
“We don’t seem to be getting anything in terms of public transport – in fact we seem to be going backwards,” he said.
Concluding the debate, joint motion proposer Cllr Evans said the council contributed about £100,000 to Bwcabus’s £700,000 annual running costs and the last time she enquired, passenger numbers were around 30,000 per year, compared to 40,000 pre-Covid.
“It’s very, very small money that the Welsh Government has to provide in order keep to their own policy that they protect transport in rural areas,” she said.
Apart from a handful of abstainers, councillors supported the motion.
In response to the motion, a Welsh Government spokeswoman said: “Despite promises that Wales would not be a penny worse off after Brexit, the UK Government has failed to replace funding for rural transport schemes previously supported by EU.
“Unfortunately, we are therefore unable to continue supporting the Bwcabus service.
“We appreciate this will be disappointing news for those who use the service, however we are working with Transport for Wales, local authorities and the Community Transport Association Cymru to explore alternative options.”
The Welsh Government also said it had provided the bus industry with vital backing through Covid and announced £46m in May to support operators and to protect the Traws Cymru network.