If a week is a long time in politics it may go some way to explaining why politicians have such short memories. It was only a few years ago that Hertfordshire County Council ruling councillors was piously telling resident’s they needed to switch off streetlights at night (coincidentally when they are most effective) to save cash and lower carbon emissions.
Now they are considering axing bus services across the county - a move that would surely push more people into their cars and thus drive up emissions.
That’s even before considering the proposals to cleave £700,000 out of its bus subsidies, which could see funding withdrawn from 52 routes, and will hit vulnerable and elderly people the hardest.
It has already left pensioners such as 88-year-old Doris McMeckan, from South Oxhey, wondering how she will get to her hospital appointments if her route is axed. Hertfordshire’s already threadbare bus network is vitally important for pensioners who want to retain their independence.
You’d expect the finances at County Hall to be in a dire state for the cabinet to consider cutting such an crucial service. Yet the council evidently has cash to spare for lavish pet projects that benefit its politicians, such as the £800,000 a year locality grant scheme. This gives each county councillor £10,000 to dole out to causes in their division. These taxpayer-funded grants allow politicians to enhance their electoral prospects by portraying themselves as philanthropic benefactors. I have yet to hear of any proposals to reduce this scheme’s funding.
The streetlight switch-off shows the council has form when it comes to cutting crucial services while still splashing cash on politically suspect schemes.
But the fact it is now considering slashing funding to public transport makes a mockery of the green arguments for turning off the streetlights.
It’s almost as if these modish political causes are invoked on a purely cynical ad hoc basis.
Meanwhile the council’s defence of the bus cut proposals is also not the most accomplished example of political rhetoric.
When questioned on the cuts, Terry Douris, the cabinet member for highways, said: "We recognise that not everybody is a bus user but everybody in Hertfordshire does pay tax which funds services which Hertfordshire County Council provides." An interesting defence that seems to argue people should only pay tax for things they directly use. By extension, that logic would also demand we cease public funding to services such as the armed forces or, say, the monarchy, which taxpayers pay for but very few use directly.
It’s also hard to fathom how locality grants fit into this logic. The taxpayers of Hertfordshire fund them, yet very few benefit from them directly. Far fewer than use the county’s buses, I would venture to guess.
Local authorities of every stripe have had their funding squeezed considerably over the last five years. This has inevitably led to tough choices being made in town and county halls. But Hertfordshire’s ruling Conservatives are displaying a perverse set of priorities that see them hacking at vital services that thousands rely on while protecting political vanity projects. It points to a concerning disconnect between County Hall and the people of Hertfordshire - especially its most vulnerable residents.