PLANS by East Lothian Council to replace terminated First bus routes have been accelerated to ensure there is no gap in the service when the company scales back its operations.

Thirteen county bus services are being terminated by First from June 10, leading to the loss of up to 40 jobs at the firm's Musselburgh bus depot.

Council officials placed the three-year contracts out to tender this week following talks with private transport firms.

It had initially been expected that the tenders would be returned by mid-May but a council spokeswoman told the Courier that the deadline has been brought forward to Monday to ensure no county town or village is left marooned by First's cuts.

The winning tenders will be chosen next Thursday (May 3) and the services registered with Transport Scotland. Once start-dates are agreed with the operators, the details of the new services will be made public. The spokeswoman said: "We brought forward the deadline for tender submissions as we could not wait until a new administration was established, which would have risked a gap in the services.

"We also wanted to give operators time to mobilise their fleets." The Courier understands that Musselburgh-based First bus drivers facing the axe received redundancy letters on Wednesday morning as part of an ongoing consultation with the firm.

Community leaders in the villages most affected by First's withdrawal have also been rallying to tackle the issue.

More than 1,000 people added their signatures to a Labour Party petition calling for more council support to bus services. The petition was handed in to the council's HQ, John Muir House, in Haddington on Monday by the party's candidates in Thursday's council elections.

A public meeting is planned next week in Pencaitland to discuss the impact on the village and neighbouring Ormiston - turn to page 21 for more details. The Association of East Lothian Community Councils is also planning to hold a meeting next month.

With local authority elections a week away, politics continued to dominate the debate over the controversial cuts this week.

SNP councillors were accused by their opponents of misleading the public over plans to establish a council-run bus company after Nationalist Keith Brown, Transport Minister, commented in a radio interview last Tuesday that "councils aren't allowed to run buses" under the current legislation.

The MSP's comments sparked a fresh war of words over the validity of the local SNP's proposals to establish a council trading company.

Labour's Iain Gray, East Lothian's MSP, challenged Mr Brown in parliament to say what financial support would be on offer from the Scottish Government to SNP councillors' proposals.

Mr Gray said: "I like the idea of a council-run bus company, but the SNP are in chaos over this. In East Lothian they say they will do it, but their own SNP transport minister says it is not legal. East Lothian SNP says the minister supports them and will provide money and change the law. "Then in parliament the minister refuses to change the law, and rules out any additional funding for buses.

He added: "The truth is that to run an arms-length bus company, under the Transport Act 1985, the council would have to convince the Traffic Commissioners that they had enough buses, drivers, ticket machines etc to run the services.

"Since a single bus costs over �200,000 the set-up costs are significant. The SNP government have made clear they will not pay, so SNP council candidates have to explain where the hundreds of thousands of pounds required would come from.

"The fact is that East Lothian already has a stake in a council-owned bus company, called Lothian Buses. We should be making every effort to try and get them to extend operations into East Lothian communities, as well as mobilising small local bus operators." SNP councillor Paul McLennan, council leader, stated that that the proposals for creating an arms-length company would not apply to commercial bus services but to supported bus routes.

He stated: "I fully expect to be able to announce details for replacement services for routes affected by the First bus withdrawal in early May and re-affirm my pledge that no community affected will be without a service when First withdraw. "I have a further meeting with Keith Brown early next week and am in touch with the First Minister on the issue and I welcome their ongoing support for our initiative.

"I briefed the Labour MP and MSP for East Lothian personally last Friday and would urge them and their council colleagues to support our initative rather than cheap political point-scoring." Transport Scotland stated: "Safeguarding bus routes is a priority for this government and we recognise the lifeline they provide for individuals, families and commuters in communities across the country. That is why Transport Scotland is working collaboratively to help councils in the Lothians to ensure important bus services continue to be provided.

"Our officials continue to offer every assistance they can to support with the legal, regulatory and procurement aspects of potential solutions. We hope to see more progress on this issue soon that will take us closer to a solution that serves the needs of local commuters and protects as many local jobs as possible." "The issue of a council-owned bus company is extremely complex and may well have elements of reserved and devolved legislation.

"We are currently working through these issues and will also be looking to explore other options for the council which may be quicker, as they don't involve legislative change, should these be required.

"This will include thoughts around utilisation of the council's own fleet where they may be able to utilise these buses for service provision such as community transport on a non-commercial basis."