Bus Services after the Spending Review - Transport Committee Contents

4  Alternative public transport provision

33. We considered the ways in which local authorities could make alternative transport provision for residents, particularly in areas where the conventional bus network had been, or is likely to be, significantly reduced.

Community transport

34. At least 1,700 community transport organisations operate in England, offering transport services for people unable to access conventional public transport because of location, personal circumstance or a lack of suitable (available) transport provided by commercial operators. Community transport includes a wide range of services, some funded by local authorities, including:

  • Flexibly routed, demand-responsive or fixed-route bus services, operating under a section 22 Community Bus permit under the Transport Act 1985. Section 22 permits are issued to bodies that wish to run a local not-for-profit public bus service. In the main, these services exist to serve a community where there is no adequate provision already in place.
  • Dial-a-ride minibuses, group transport services and assisted travel services (such as home-to-school, non-emergency patient transport or social care transport), operating under Section 19 of the Transport Act 1985. This allows not-for-profit organisations to charge passengers for providing transport to the people whom the organisation serves, without the need to obtain a public service vehicle operator's license. It applies to any not-for-profit body associated with educational, religious, social welfare, recreational and other activities of benefit to the community. We were told that several local voluntary organisations, such as Age UK, provided community transport schemes specifically for elderly people.[89]
  • Wheels-to-Work schemes and community car schemes.

Since the Spending Review, some local authorities have confirmed an increase in investment for community transport, whilst others reduced funding.[90]

35. The Minister has said that "where commercial bus services are not viable, community transport can play a valuable role in preventing isolation". On 9 March the Department for Transport announced that a £10m fund would be distributed to rural local transport authorities to "kick-start the development of community transport in their area".[91] This was accompanied by guidance to local authorities to help them "get the most out of community transport".[92] In addition, the Government announced a partnership with the Community Transport Association UK (CTA UK) to provide each of the 76 rural local authorities in England £2,600 for consultancy advice on "how to establish, manage and make sustainable community transport operations within their area".[93] We welcome the Department for Transport's decision to allocate £10 million to rural local transport authorities to encourage the growth of community transport in their area. This came months after the Department withdrew several ring-fenced transport funds on the basis that local authorities should choose their own priorities. The new fund is a welcome admission of the need for targeted funding.

36. The majority of witnesses considered it unrealistic to expect community transport to fill a large proportion of the gap caused by the withdrawal of tendered bus services.[94] It was pointed out that many community transport providers had seen their own budgets reduced following the Spending Review.[95] Steve Warburton of the TAS Partnership highlighted a lack of crossover between bus services and community transport services: "I don't think there is an army of willing community transport people wanting to take on bus services out there".[96] Difficulties in recruiting volunteer drivers were also deemed to constrain significant growth of the sector.[97] Community transport schemes were relatively cheap to operate because of their flexibility, but this advantage would be lost if excessive demands were placed on the operators.[98] Restructuring of the health and education services in local areas could also affect the sector.[99]

37. CTA UK believed that section 22 permit community transport services could replace about 10-15% of the gap caused by the withdrawal of tendered bus services. With "expert advice and guidance", local authorities could utilise community transport organisations "as part of a solution to the problem". It welcomed the additional Government funding to encourage the growth of community transport.[100] CILT, on the other hand, criticised the "ad hoc allocation of resources to the funding of community transport as a substitute for the bus" as being "a retrograde step", which would encourage the "blanket withdrawal of subsidy for socially [and economically] necessary bus services in favour of community transport solutions, including in areas where this solution is not the most appropriate".[101]

38. When questioned on this matter, the Minister argued that it was inappropriate to have a "double-decker bus trundling around country lanes to pick up two people". It made better commercial sense for local authorities to provide a vehicle "appropriate for a very small group of people". The Minister accepted that there was a risk that, in some parts of the country, local people who relied on bus services may find their local tendered service withdrawn and no adequate community transport available in its place. He had tasked his officials to analyse the impact of local authority decisions on subsidised bus services and the provision of community transport "to find out whether there are any indeed individual areas where people are significantly disadvantaged by decisions taken locally".[102]

39. The growth of the community transport sector could mitigate, to a degree, the effects of the loss of subsidised bus services. However, the evidence suggests that community transport schemes are unlikely to replace more than a small fraction of withdrawn local authority-subsidised bus services. Community transport schemes are themselves often reliant on public funding. We welcome the Department's efforts to collate a national picture of where local decisions have resulted in a lack of both conventional bus and community transport provision. In chapter 3, we recommended that the Department should use this data to identify and, in conjunction with the Local Government Association, disseminate examples of best practice of local authorities who have provided a cost-effective, flexible mix of local transport services, which cater for people who might otherwise be isolated.

40. CTA UK argued that each local authority should have an official who served as a community transport "champion", whether that was a dedicated post or not.[103] The LGA's view was that many local authorities already had nominated officers with responsibility for community transport; it stressed that a uniform model would not work everywhere due to the inherently local nature of community transport.[104] An important role for local authorities is to ensure that the community transport sector is developed in tandem with conventional bus services. Different ways of doing this will work best in different places. The LGA should identify and disseminate examples of best practice.

41. The concessionary fares scheme does not apply to most community transport providers, although some local authorities do permit this at their discretion. Currently only registered services run by community transport operators under a section 22 permit, usually demand-responsive bus services, are eligible for the scheme. CTA UK said that this policy "discriminates against people who can only use community transport schemes". It calls for the scheme to be extended to cover other community transport operators, particularly dial-a-ride and other section 19 permit services.[105] Little Red Bus in Harrogate suggested that concessionary passengers could pay a nominal fare to use community transport services.[106]

42. If the Government genuinely wants to encourage the growth of the community transport sector, it should legislate to permit the use of the concessionary pass on a wider range of community transport services.

43. The scope of our inquiry did not extend to issues concerning the regulation of the bus industry, quality contracts and quality partnerships. However, it is clear that closer partnership working between local authorities, bus operators and community transport operators will be necessary post-Spending Review, in order to better utilise diminished resources. We encourage local authorities and integrated transport authorities to use the provisions within the Local Transport Act as means to achieve better partnership working, where necessary.

'Area-based integration' transport

44. Some witnesses argued that local authorities could reduce costs through better co-ordination of the different public transport services they provided (such as social services, non-emergency patient transport, volunteer schemes), for instance through sharing vehicles. The TAS Partnership argued that some local authorities were "very good" at such integrative transport whilst others "operated in little, isolated spheres".[107] CILT agreed that there was "significant room for improvement" in how local authorities co-ordinated transport in this way, although it noted that the NHS had specific requirements in relation to journey times.[108] A recent report by pteg recommended better sharing of good practice about cross-sector working, particularly in respect of "the pooling of vehicle fleets and budgets".[109] Devon County Council told us, however, that its own efforts of area-based integration had resulted in "fairly limited" financial savings.[110]

45. The Minister accepted that local authorities could do more to co-ordinate the transport services they provided. County councils or unitary authorities, he said, were "very well placed" to do this because they were responsible for transport, adult social care and education. He criticised some local authorities who had "three different lots of people doing three different sets of things, with three different lots of buses, some of them sitting empty all day", although he stressed his conviction that central government's role was to draw attention to the benefits of such an integrated approach and not to intervene directly.[111]

46. There is evidence of some potential for local authorities to reduce costs through better co-ordination, planning and delivery of different types of transport services, including public buses, community transport, education, social care and health. The Government should identify ways to overcome the barriers (including regulatory or legislative barriers) to co-ordination, drawing on good practice around the country. The LGA should have a key role in identifying and disseminating best practice.

89   Ev 55, para 2.2.2 Back

90   Cambridgeshire County Council proposed to set aside £1m of the £2.7m saved over four years through reducing its tendered bus services for spending on community transport, although by July 2011 only £220k had been confirmed for that period. Central Bedfordshire Council has assigned £100,000 to be used to stimulate and support the community transport sector. Hartlepool Council, on the other hand, has ceased funding for all its dial-a-ride schemes. Ev 96, Summary, paras 2.6-2.7 [Passenger Focus] Back

91   HC Deb, 9 March 2011, cols 69-70WS Back

92   Department for Transport, Community Transport: Guidance for Local Authorities, March 2011, p 4 Back

93   HC Deb, 9 March 2011, cols 69-70WS Back

94   For example, Q 126, Ev w130 Back

95   Ev w135 Back

96   Q 47 Back

97   Ev w130 Back

98   Ev 85, para 6 Back

99   Q 126 Back

100   Qq 156-57, Ev 77, para 2.2; Ev 166; "New transitional support for rural CT", Community Transport UK press release, 10 March 2011 Back

101   Ev 85, para 5 Back

102   Qq 271-72 Back

103   Q 167 Back

104   Ev 143 Back

105   Qq 131, 163; Ev 77, para 5.1 Back

106   Ev w135 Back

107   Q 48 Back

108   Q 49 Back

109   pteg, Total Transport: Working across sectors to achieve better outcomes, June 2011, p 20 Back

110   Q 214 Back

111   Q 274 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 11 August 2011