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Monday, 22 September 2014

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22,000 say no to Cumbria council cutbacks

More than 22,000 people have signed petitions opposing controversial cuts to fire and bus services.

Campaigners in Workington, Whitehaven, Maryport and Cockermouth are among those fighting against the plans, which they say will have major repercussions for their communities.

One petition against the fire cuts saw almost 3,000 signatures collected in Workington and Whitehaven alone.

Maryport town council also led a letter-writing campaign, while cuts to some of west Cumbria’s bus services also attracted strong opposition from the west. The signatures were put forward in protest to Cumbria County Council’s high profile cost-cutting proposals – which have been labelled “anti-rural” by one councillor.

Results of the authority’s budget consultation, which ended last week, reveal significant opposition in three key areas – bus service cuts, fire service cuts and on-street parking charges.

The council’s ruling cabinet meets on Thursday to look at the feedback before drawing up finalised plans.

Campaigners hope the level of protest will prompt a rethink to the most controversial parts of the plans.

But if this happens, the council will have to find other ways to make crucial savings, with its income set to drop by almost £90m over the next three years – even more than originally thought.

To address this deficit, the authority set out a list of 35 cost-cutting proposals in October last year and invited the public to have their say.

The most unpopular by the council’s scoring system was a proposal to stop subsidising bus services, resulting in about 70 routes either being reduced or scrapped. Instead it was proposed to work with communities to come up with local transport solutions.

But of those who responded to the consultation, 67 per cent either disagreed or strongly disagreed with this plan. Only a quarter were in favour. On top of this, petitions from individual communities saw a total of 3,000 signatures collected in opposition.

Objectors included Cumbria Tourism, Churches Together in Cumbria, Upper Eden Medical Practice, Brampton Economic Partnership, Allerdale and Copeland Green Party, People First, several WIs and Penrith and the Border MP Rory Stewart.

It was argued that cutting bus services, with no real viable alternative in place, would leave those living in rural communities – particularly the elderly, disabled and younger residents, plus those on low incomes – isolated and unable to access vital services, such as healthcare.

It would hit those who rely on public transport for their jobs, impact on tourism and encourage car use. Also highly unpopular were proposed fire service reforms, including plans to halve the number of fire engines in Workington, Whitehaven, Penrith, Maryport and Kendal.

The consultation saw 49 per cent of respondents oppose this idea, while individual petitions and letter writing campaigns were backed by more than 19,000 people.

Comments centred around safety concerns, particularly if there were simultaneous emergencies in the county.

Plans to start charging for on-street parking were also controversial, with 45 per cent of respondents disagreeing. In addition, local councils, tourism and business groups expressed concerns about the impact it would have on the high street, encouraging people to shop out of town.

Among those with concerns about all of these three proposals, plus others, is the county council local committee for Eden. Its chairman, Martin Stephenson, will address Thursday’s meeting, calling for a better deal for rural communities across the county.

“There is a general anti-rural feel about the draft budget. We wanted to make sure cabinet are aware of that. There are several items that will have an adverse effect on communities,” he said.

“It needs some sensible thinking – to go back, re-look at things and see if there’s something slightly different they can do to achieve similar savings without having the same impact.”

The most popular suggestion in the list was to reduce and streamline management, with 93 per cent in favour and three per cent against. The final budget will be presented to the full council in the middle of next month.

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