In the country it's pay up or miss the bus

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Welcome to Wookey Hole Caves, home to some of Britain's most spectacular subterranean scenery. Welcome, that is, to those of you with cars.

Welcome to Wookey Hole Caves, home to some of Britain's most spectacular subterranean scenery. Welcome, that is, to those of you with cars.

Every year, a quarter of a million people visit the limestone caves, many of them coming while on holiday at Weston-super-Mare, just a dozen miles away. Overwhelmingly, they choose to drive.

Wookey Hole village does have a bus service of sorts, run by Badgerline. Eight buses a day ply the two-mile route through the Mendip Hills from Wells, England's smallest cathedral city. They start at 9.30am and end at 4.30 pm, a timetable sufficiently poor to deter tourists and frustrate residents.

Weak as it is, this essential link is about to become a lot weaker. FirstGroup, Britain's largest bus company and owner of Badgerline, announced last month that it wants to scrap the Wookey Hole route, giving the local authorities just six weeks' notice. It is allowed to do this because the law says it can, despite the Herculean difficulty of finding an alternative operator with so little warning.

Peter Haylings, owner and managing director of Wookey Hole Caves Ltd, said: "I object both as a resident in the village and as a businessman. I think it's iniquitous that the bus companies can just withdraw their services like that.

"We don't seem to be getting joined-up government. Petrol prices are astronomical yet the bus service is very poor and visitors are reluctant to come. It affects us directly. People in the village are very irate."

Janet Sherwin is among them. "We are all in a state of shocked disbelief that the company is able to just do this to us. I don't know how we're going to manage. There are many elderly non-drivers here. My daughter Cathy is also unable to drive owing to a disability and relies on the bus to get to work."

Wookey Hole is not alone in having its buses threatened.FirstGroup, which also runs First Great Western trains, has announced changes to the buses right across its region, threatening to close 56 routes and withdraw completely from places such as Exeter, Launceston and Liskeard, leaving the West Country scrambling to find replacements.

"They are holding a gun to our head," said Chris Clarke, Somerset County Council's Liberal Democrat leader. "Bus operators only have to give us 42 days' notice before they wriggle away from the contracts. It's ridiculous. What local authorities need to be able to do is plan year by year in the confidence that the pattern of services will continue.

"In a rural areas, these services are the lifelines - ones that pensioners and people who aren't so well off depend on. All the time it's picking away and picking away at the local infrastructure."

In the past few days Somerset has been forced to do a deal with FirstGroup. Badgerline will run just half the service to Wookey Hole - four buses a day - but only with the guarantee that Somerset residents give the firm, which last year made a profit of £142m before tax, an extra £6,000.

Somerset has already had to buy off threats to services around Shepton Mallet and Bath by giving FirstGroup an additional £41,000.

According to Mr Clarke, the total cost of these extra subsidies is likely to approach £100,000, but some routes will disappear. Dorset, Devon and Cornwall are in the same bind.

FirstGroup carried out a similar "rationalisation" in East Anglia last summer, pulling out of rural bus services in favour of more profitable urban and suburban routes. The upshot in Norfolk was the loss of eight main bus services - the equivalent of £100,000 of subsidy that the council could no longer afford.

When we spoke to FirstGroup, a spokesman said that the company was committed to seeing more people travel by bus but that many of its routes were unprofitable, with some carrying only two or three passengers per trip.

"Travel patterns across the country change at the margins over time and services have to be adapted," he said. "After discussion with local authorities, we have changed just 1.5 per cent of our South-west services. The majority of these will continue to operate by other means."

Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP for Exeter, another town where FirstGroup has threatened to withdraw some services, is particularly concerned. He has promised to raise the issue with government ministers and will press them to amend the Transport Bill, currently in the House of Lords, so that bus operators are obliged to give substantially more notice of their plans: six months rather than six weeks.

He also believes that councils should be free to use existing government subsidies more flexibly instead of having to break their budgets when presented with this sort of commercial ultimatum.

The sudden withdrawal of much-valued buses also raises the question of why there is no nationally recognised advocacy group for bus users, such as the statutory Rail Passengers Council. Last week, after our Passenger Power campaign revealed that the train operators are drawing up plans which would damage rural stations, preventing them from selling a full range of tickets, the RPC was the first to articulate travellers' anger in the newspapers and on television.

When rural buses are threatened, however, the millions of users - disproportionately the less well off - have no one to speak up for them. With bus use rising for the first time since the Second World War, Passenger Power believes there should be a Bus Passengers Council established by Parliament to help promote an often neglected arm of public transport. We have written to John Prescott to say so.