173 bus service is saved 'but we must not let our guard down' warn councillors
By Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
5th Aug 2022 | Local News
A vital bus route in rural Somerset has been saved following a successful campaign by local councillors.
FirstBus operates the 173 services between Wells and Bath, which serves the villages of South Horrington, West Horrington, Binegar, Gurney Slade and Chilcompton as well as the towns of Midsomer Norton and Radstock.
The operator indicated in July that the route could be scrapped in the autumn, citing a severe shortage of bus drivers and the withdrawal of government funding provided during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the company has now U-turned following a campaign by councillors and a petition which attracted more than 600 signatures.
A motion on the proposed loss of the service was due to be debated by Mendip District Council's cabinet when it meets in Shepton Mallet on Monday evening (August 8).
Councillor Tom Killen, who leads the opposition Conservative group on the council, said the loss of the service would "have a huge impact upon those living and working along its route", with residents being "unable to travel to work, school, university and places of work."
He added; "There will be numerous social, economic and environmental consequences of this decision including an increase in a feeling of isolation as well as a need for greater car use."
However, this debate will no longer need to take place after Liberal Democrat county councillors persuaded FirstBus managers to change their mind and secure the route.
Councillor Theo Butt Philip, who represents the Wells division, said: "I am delighted that First Bus has listened to the overwhelming outpouring of public support for the 173.
"I would like to thank the hundreds of people who signed our petition or wrote to First Bus letting them know how important the 173 bus is.
The 173 is the only bus left serving East Wells, South Horrington, West Horrington, Binegar, Gurney Slade and Chilcompton – without the 173 these communities would be cut off from public transport entirely."
A petition launched by the Wells Liberal Democrats to save the 173 route received 650 signatures within just a few days of being launched.
Councillor Tessa Munt – who was MP for Wells between 2010 and 2015 – said: "People rely on the 173 to get to school and college, to medical appointments, to work, to the shops, and to the market.
"I am incredibly relieved that the 173 is not now facing the axe. We must continue to ensure vital bus routes, serving Wells and the surrounding villages are protected."
Councillor Edric Hobbs – whose Mendip Hills division includes the villages between Wells and Midsomer Norton – said: "I am pleased that the weight of public opinion has persuaded FirstBus to keep the 173 bus service.
"I had many emails from worried people including pensioners who don't drive, people with sight impairment who can't drive, children who use the bus for school and extra-curricular activity, people who use it to get to work and the businesses who employ those people.
"My youngest son uses it to get to work in Midsomer Norton. Without this service he and many others may have been looking for work elsewhere.
Hopefully we as county councillors can work with FirstBus to secure services for the benefit of all concerned."
Councillor Tony Robbins, who represents the same division, added: "It's fantastic news that the 173 has been saved. People on that route will be pleased and relieved in equal measure – it goes to show what can happen when we act together.
"We must now actively encourage people to use the bus regularly. However we must not let our guard down we have to be ready to act again should other routes be threatened with removal of their bus service but for now this is a great result."
The county council secured £11.9M from central government for its bus service improvement plan (BSIP), which included commitments to extending services in rural areas and improving Wells bus station.
The council has already used some of the funding to set lower fares for Taunton's park and ride, which come into effect from September 1.
Councillor Mike Rigby, portfolio holder for transport and digital, said: "We're really pleased that the possible loss of the 173 service from Wells to Bath has now been dismissed by the operator, First West of England.
"This is an important service, linking a number of sizeable communities around Wells to the city. We'd like to thank all those who joined the call of local Lib Dem councillors and signed the petition to lobby First for the retention of the service."