Fears over volunteer gap for Norfolk services

Fears have been raised that volunteer-led efforts to keep paths clear and provide transport will not be enough to plug gaps left by budget cuts.

Norfolk County Council plans to ask groups of enthusiasts to help maintain the county's 2,355 miles of footpaths, while also encouraging community transport schemes grow as it looks to cut bus services.

The plans come in the context of efforts to make �60m of savings agreed for the 2011/12 budget as part of a three-year plan to save �155m.

But at the county council's Environment, Transport and Development overview and scrutiny panel, some expressed concern that the Big Society model would not be sufficient.

At yesterday's meeting, Liberal Democrat councillor Tim East said: 'We keep being told that money needs to be saved, but cuts are a question of choice. The excuses are familiar that there is no choice, but there is always a choice.


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'The cop-out in all this is relying on a mythical army of volunteers who are poised to leap into action to plug the gaps in bus services and footpath clearances. Unfortunately this fabled army is already exhausted from all the other things it is being asked to do.'

Councillors heard that under plans to save �580,000 over the next three years regular path maintenance would be handed to parish councils, voluntary groups and the relevant landowners.

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In a report, council officers Gerry Barnes and John Jones outlined a focus on making the most out of a network of longer-distance 'Norfolk Trails' which could attract walkers from near and far. The report added maintaining such tracks and paths would be 'a mammoth task and beyond the resources' of the council.

Under questioning Mr Jones pointed to the 60 environmental voluntary groups in the region as a case for optimism. However, he acknowledged the response from parish councils over the plan to give them more responsibility to maintain paths had not been as positive as hoped.

Transport plans, which are part of an effort to cut �1m on what the council spends subsidising bus services, received praise from some quarters for a 'courageous' approach in what more than one councillor termed as 'being between a rock and a hard place'.

Set to lead to fewer buses at night and on Saturdays, the plans were presented by assistant director of travel and transport Tracy Jessop and would lead to more demand responsive transport in rural areas.

They would also focus on more community transport, an idea for which the county council has received �480,000 ring fenced funding.

The future of Norwich's Park and Ride system and decisions over closures also came under question at yesterday's meeting.

A report given to the council outlined plans to stop subsiding the scheme within two years. The news follows on from cuts in the subsidy from �1.97m in 2010/11 to around �600,000 in 2011/12.

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