The large crowd assembles for the meeting Photo: Ray Duff
By Ray Duff: On Tuesday, a meeting was held between local Stagecoach management and scores of bus users from across Folkestone and beyond.
The meeting was organized by the Folkestone Labour Party and chaired by Cllr Abena Akuffo-Kelly, from Folkestone and Hythe District Council, alongside Folkestone Town Mayor Cllr Belinda Walker. The attendees included Managing Director Joel Mitchell and local operations manager, Dover, Louise Sill, from Stagecoach Southeast.
L-R Folkestone Mayor Cllr Belinda Walker, Joel Mitchell, Stagecoach SE MD and Louise Sill, Operations manager, Dover Photo: Ray Duff
The meeting covered the effects of the most recent bus route cuts and more. Several questions had been sent by email beforehand along with many from the floor. After the introductions, Mr. Mitchell outlined the situation Stagecoach buses had found themselves in over the last few years.
He first pointed out that by 2019 they had devised a five-year improvement plan for services across East Kent and East Sussex, but that they had been blown off course by the effects of the pandemic and a lack of recovery in bus passenger numbers, particularly those using bus passes which, even at the national level, was still only around sixty percent of prior usage. This left the company with a shortfall in revenue and they had to make difficult decisions, especially regarding those services which do not at least cover their running cost.
Mr. Mitchell said he felt very resentful to have to do so as it wasn’t what he’d joined the company to do. Further, for every bus pass user, the company only receives £1 back from the Government when the service cost can be £2.50.
The bus cuts in the Folkestone area have been worse than most other places, followed by Dover area, and this has had a bad impact on people, especially the most vulnerable. The Folkestone bus garage was closed due to its age and location and they could not afford to keep three such open across Folkestone, Ashford and Dover, the latter of which are more modern facilities.
There have been many questions about the bus cuts, some repeatedly, about main route services such as the
- 102 (Dover- Hythe or Romney Marsh),
- 16 (the cut Folkestone -Hythe portion), the
- 10 (Ashford) especially the cut Sunday service; and the less used generally buses such as the
- 70 (cut) to Enbrook valley, and the
- 74 to East Cliff and Downs Road (cut to just a few weekdays) the reduced
- 73 to Park Farm & Hawkinge; and
- morning school and now cut
- evening 17 Elham Valley buses.
Joel Mitchell, managing director for Stagecoach South East, felt that whilst the company was now getting back on a much better footing financially, they were only just beginning to re-assess where some restorations could be made to cut or curtailed services.
They are looking again at the 74 route and may introduce some extras, including maybe on Saturdays, on a ‘use it of lose it basis’. The 16 to and from Hythe would be a problem to bring back, cost wise, but some early and later in the day ones may be possible. All such must be on an at least break-even basis or even a small profit to be able to maintain them.
It was acknowledged that the 10 service on a Sunday was an important one, especially for those needing the Harvey Hospital so they may look again at that; though a Parish Councillor from Lympne, whilst praising the return of a service through the village, felt that the service was still not good enough.
The 74 service had only been partly restored, as with the 73 to Hawkinge, due to funding direct from Kent County Council for the time being as ‘socially useful routes’.
Overall, most people felt the meeting had been very useful, even hopeful and it has been suggested and welcomed by Stagecoach that a bus users group be formed to have further meetings, alongside those by the Councils, and other groups are also asking for the same.