Councillors have debated ‘disturbing’ proposals to provide community transport to surrounding villages at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds.

Andover Town Council’s Community Transport Working Group had brought forward a report which included suggestions of funding five bus routes once per week to villages near Andover at a cost of over £70,000 per year to the council.

Proponents of the scheme said it “will be of benefit to the town and business” but others argued the report was “deficient.”

Following debate, a recommendation to set up a budget line for the plans was removed from the plans, with the group to refine its proposals further.

At the Assets and Communities Meeting on Tuesday, January 12, members were asked to receive and vote on the recommendations of three working groups. While those for the ‘Visit Andover’ website and council website refresh were passed, the community transport report proved contentious.

The report contained details of a proposed community transport scheme to be operated by Unity with council funding. Five routes between Andover and 26 other villages, including Stockbridge, were proposed, with members asked to agree the benefits of community transport in principle, as well as set up a budget line.

While there was consensus on agreeing the idea in principle, the latter item caused concern. In the report, costs of £1,411.60 for each route to operate once a week were given, equating to £73,403.20 per year. To become cost neutral, the council would need 283 users per week, or 14,716 per year, paying £5 each for a return journey.

Councillor David Coole opened proceedings, saying that while the town council had a geographical boundary, he believes it has “a wider community boundary with the villages”.

He said: “In the report, there are numerous mental, physical and social health benefits of using community transport, and the routes that have been proposed by Unity are those that don’t exist elsewhere.”

However, Cllr Barbara Long expressed concerns if local taxes are to be used for the plans, saying: “If it’s from our precept, I would have to disagree as the precept should be spent on residents in the parish, not in the villages.”

She said that it would be “absolutely fantastic” if all routes would be cost neutral, but that she “can’t necessarily see that.”

Cllr Robin Hughes echoed her concerns, saying that the yearly cost equated to “about 25 per cent” of the council’s annual precept. He drew comparisons to former free transport between Andover and Winchester hospital, which he said was “withdrawn through lack of use.”

“We have to be exceedingly careful that we don’t end up paying stuff out that we weren’t sure of,” he said, “and I think we’re open to a lot of problems here.”

He concluded: “The report is quite deficient, and it makes worse being deficient when you’re asking for a possibility of 70-odd thousand pounds.”

Cllr Christopher Ecclestone said that he “almost entirely agreed with Cllr Hughes,” adding that he was “disturbed” by the proposal.

He said that he did not see the proposal as a function of the town council, saying it was a “cross-borough initiative” which should be funded by Andover BID.

He said: “As a party that is supposed to be taking revenues from shops and businesses in the town centre and recycling this towards generating foot traffic in the town centre, [Andover BID] is really the party that should be backing this proposal.”

Cllr Coole responded to their concerns, saying that the intention is to get parish councils who are served by the proposed service to contribute to the cost of the bus.

He said he had informal discussions with Stockbridge Parish Council’s Chair and Vice-Chair who he said were “very excited with this concept and would look towards contributing towards it,” reducing the potential burden on the council.

If each village and town contributed the same amount to the plans, this would equate to £2823.20 per year if no income was received. With more passengers on the route, this figure would be reduced, with 283 passengers a week across the routes producing a "small income".

He also noted that the recommendation does not yet approve the expenditure on the transport, just the setting up of a budget line.

An amendment to the recommendations was then proposed, removing the need to set up a budget line. This was passed, with Cllr Ecclestone against and Cllr Sangster abstaining.

The amended recommendations as a whole were then passed with the same votes, with the exception of Cllr Gregori now voting against.

The Community Transport Working Group will now continue its work, and report back to the committee at a later stage.