THE bus service connecting Wiveliscombe to Taunton looks set to be cut back at the end of next month despite a campaign to boost passenger numbers.

First Bus South, which trades as Buses of Somerset, announced this week that although numbers of people using the No 25 service had increased in the past few months, it was not enough to make the route viable.

The company told the council it will continue to need the subsidy it provided to keep the service running as it was – but the authority said it does not have the money as it struggles to close a £100 million budget gap and avoid going bankrupt.

Under the bus company’s proposals the No 25 from Taunton via Milverton and Wiveliscombe to Dulverton would become a three-hourly service, with a spur to Langley Marsh axed completely.

It is also proposing a reduction in the No 28 Taunton to Minehead service and axing two other buses serving the South Somerset area.

West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger is arranging an urgent meeting with First Bus managing director Simon Goff to raise his concerns over the proposals.

Mr Liddell-Grainger said: “It is vital we talk about this.

“The No 25 is vitally important to the rural communities it serves because it is the only service they have.”

Wiveliscombe Town Council chairman Cllr Roger Wilson said the news was ‘very sad’ for the town.

Cllr Wilson said: “They are cutting back on a very important resource which is used by a lot of the parishioners.

“First Bus should have given advance notice of these changes to the council but I understand they only announced it just before they met councillors at an advisory meeting.”

Somerset Cllr Dave Mansell, who represents the Wiveliscombe area, said the issue had been ‘handled badly and looks bad’, but there was still a little hope and he would do what he could to resist the cut.

Cllr Mansell said: “Local campaigns have encouraged more people to use the 25 and 28, so I am very disappointed First Bus have still announced service reductions for these routes.

“Negotiations on these changes are continuing between First and Somerset Council.

“I hope a solution can be found to maintain the current services.

“As part of the council’s budget-setting in the face of a financial crisis, I have been making strong calls that current funding support for bus services in Somerset must be protected.

“This budget has already been cut too far.”

A spokesperson for Buses of Somerset said the company reviewed its entire network twice a year in line with its enhanced partnership agreement with Somerset Council and was working closely with councillors and bus user groups.

The spokesperson said the council asked the firm at an advisory board meeting to outline what the network could look like from April if the current support funding was withdrawn.

They said: “It is important to note that no final decisions have been made yet on any of the routes.

“Last July, Somerset Council agreed on a funding package that helped to bridge the gap between the operational costs and the revenue, and since then, this has allowed the routes to remain as they are today.

“In that period, we have seen passenger growth, but unfortunately, not to the extent that would negate the ongoing need for financial support.

“We have made it clear that ongoing funding is required to protect these bus routes.

“We understand the social value that these routes provide and the great job that our people do every day to keep people moving.

“Reducing or withdrawing routes is the last thing we want to do, but without ongoing support, this could be an outcome.

“The effect the pandemic has had on services, as well as rising costs due to inflationary pressures, has meant we have had to reassess all of our bus networks and can no longer operate bus services that are not at least covering the costs of operations.

“We remain committed to working with Somerset Council to find a solution and will meet again over the coming days.

“We understand how important these services are to people.

“A further update will be provided once we have clarity over the future of funding for these routes.”

Somerset executive Cllr Richard Wilkins said: “This is incredibly disappointing, especially after the efforts the council and communities have made to encourage bus use on these routes.

“However, we look forward to further meetings with the operator as soon as possible to try and find a way forward.

“We simply do not have the extra Government funding to subsidise these routes beyond March.

“We do what we can with the money we have.

“This year, we will spend nearly £5.2 million on subsidising 76 routes across the county.

“Although there are no planned savings on bus subsidies for the next financial year, the council is under enormous financial pressure.”