Government minister quizzed about ‘lifeline’ bus service

Norman Lamb MP pictured catching a Coasthopper bus at East Runton with transport minister Norman Bak

Norman Lamb MP pictured catching a Coasthopper bus at East Runton with transport minister Norman Baker.PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Concerned users of a popular rural bus route got to question the government's transport minister yesterday.

Norman Baker heard the issues at the Constantia Cottage Restaurant at East Runton, near Cromer, before catching the 12.30pm Coasthopper from the High Street to Blakeney with regular commuters.

Funding cuts and a drop in government fuel tax subsidies last year forced Norfolk Green to impose fare increases and cut some journeys on the route, which operates on the coast road between King's Lynn and Cromer.

Mr Baker, a Liberal Democrat, said: 'We very much value rural bus services which are a lifeline for rural communities.'

He added he had been lobbying the government in order to protect the bus services and said: 'We have to look at things in a more creative way... The Coasthopper is very well supported by my Liberal Democrat colleagues. It is clearly a very important link for communities and the economy.'

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Mr Baker said the Coasthopper was one of the fastest growing bus services.

As well as the transport minister, north Norfolk MP Norman Lamb sat in during the question and answer session and travelled on the bus.

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Mr Baker said the government would be introducing a new grant to cover concessionary fares, which would take into account rural factors as well as the average age of an area.

From April this year the Bus Service Operators' Grant, formerly known as the Fuel Duty Rebate, will become available through the government.

Mr Baker added £1m would be given to Norfolk County Council for community transport and he was keen for bus services and social bus services to link up.

He was also keen on encouraging areas to offer 'multi-operational tickets' for different routes.

Mr Baker did not want to impact on the competition between different bus companies in Norfolk.

Marie Strong, county councillor for Wells, told bus users and Mr Baker: 'Norfolk is a rural county and rural isolation is all too easily identified within our parishes.

'A key factor in offsetting rural isolation is good public transport – and this is a costly exercise made even more costly for this county because of its beauty.'

She added: 'A beautiful county attracts visitors – visitors are welcome, they are vital to Norfolk's economy.

'But a high percentage of these visitors use their concessionary bus passes – passes which are not refunded by the government to the extent originally intended.'

Dr Strong said the Coasthopper was not just a 'holiday bus' but was used by people every day.

'These are the ways in which people can avoid, and help others avoid, rural isolation.

'These are the reasons why we need the full subsidy to support all our rural public transport,' she added.

At the end of last year, Charles Sanders, owner of Holt-based Sanders Coaches, accused rival company Konectbus of having no interest in providing public transport links to isolated villages.

He said his own x44 and 44 services from Sheringham to Cromer to Norwich via Aylsham helped subsidise his loss-making rural routes.

Konectbus, owned by national transport company Go-Ahead Group, launched its konectexpress 2 service from Sheringham and Cromer to Norwich in November, which was the company's first route in north Norfolk.

At the time Julian Patterson, operations and commercial director at Konectbus said it had identified a route where the business could offer something a bit different.

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