Bus Services after the Spending Review - Transport Committee Contents


Written evidence from Community Transport (BUS 12)

1.  BACKGROUND

1.1  Community Transport is a national charity and social enterprise, operating passenger transport services in six West Midlands districts, three in Greater Manchester and also in Newcastle upon Tyne. The Charity operates 92 accessible and standard minibuses, driven by a mix of paid staff and volunteers, providing more than 400,000 passenger trips per year.

1.2  The services provided comprise:

—  Transport for voluntary and community sector groups—typically children and young people, older people, disabled people and people on low incomes.

—  Contracted services in partnership with local authorities, Passenger Transport Executives and NHS bodies - for example for home-to-school services for children with SEN, access to day care and day opportunities for older people, access to primary and secondary health care, where statutory PTS is unavailable.

—  Tailored services for particular purposes—for example, the Charity's service taking families to visit offenders in prisons, thereby supporting strategies to reduce re-offending.

—  Social car schemes—in Coventry and Dudley.

—  Shopmobility—in Oldham.

—  Demand responsive transport—for example shopper services in the West Mids and Newcastle and Dial-a-Ride in Oldham.

—  A Section 22 Community Bus service—the 649, started in Birmingham in December 2010.

2.  EFFECTS OF CHANGES TO BUS SERVICE OPERATORS GRANT (BSOG)

2.1  The Charity played a role in lobbying for BSOG to be extended to Section 19 operations some years ago. The grant effectively recognised that many of our services are provided to passengers because they are unable to access conventional, timetabled bus services that were already supported through BSOG. We believe this principle of equity is important and that a measure of subsidy for community transport must be retained to address holes in the transport system - especially for older people, disabled people and other socially excluded groups.

2.2  In terms of plans to reduce the value of BSOG by 20% from 2012, it is our view that this will disadvantage non-scheduled service users to a greater extent than conventional bus users. In our case, claimed BSOG has a value of £40,000 per year, which is broadly equivalent to the purchase of one accessible minibus per year; this in a context where we need to replace eight minibuses per year (on a 12 year cycle). There are already huge difficulties in attracting capital investment both because of downwards pressures on contract prices and the decrease in the number of capital grants available from public sources.

2.3  It should be noted that the Charity has only once been successful in attracting capital funding through the Local Transport Plan - from Dudley in 2004.) Greater DfT encouragement for funding modern low floor accessible minibuses (cost, £65,000) through LTP would carry enormous benefits for our service users.

2.4  The Charity is aware of plans to move responsibility for administering BSOG from the central DfT unit to local authorities. We cannot support this move unless there is a legal obligation on transport authorities to ensure that the funds made available will be available to support community transport in direct proportion to the money currently available through BSOG.

2.5  In overall terms, it would be wrong to exaggerate the importance of reduced BSOG to our finances; it represents just 2% of the charity's service-generated income. The real problems lie in the shape of services that will be available to disadvantaged groups and individuals as the effects of the lower local authority spending work through.

3.  REDUCTIONS IN SUPPORT BY LOCAL AUTHORITIES FOR TRANSPORT SERVICES

3.1  In terms of services contracted from local authorities (total forecast value in 2010-11, £1,252,000), it is important to draw a distinction between services provided on a statutory basis and those commissioned on a discretionary basis.

Statutory contracted services

3.2  About half our contracted services are related to statutory home-to-school transport for children with SEN in seven metropolitan districts: Birmingham, Dudley, Manchester, Oldham, Salford, Sandwell and Solihull. From discussions we are having with commissioners, we are not aware of any major changes to SEN transport eligibility, and commissioners are forecasting continued service provision at or near current levels.

3.3  Nevertheless there are pressures of competition in most urban areas. Some authorities have piloted electronic e-tendering run on a real-time, "Dutch auction" basis. In at least one area (Coventry), the result has been the transfer of almost all SEN transport to PHV/Hackney providers. We are concerned that we have, as a result, been effectively excluded from the market, as we are unable to reduce wage costs to the level apparently acceptable to self-employed drivers (below NMW rates). We are one of many agencies concerned that this mode of provision may, if not properly monitored, result in poor quality in terms of vehicles, drivers and safety standards.

Discretionary services

3.4  The other major segment of our contract portfolio is discretionary services mainly, but not entirely, provided to older and disabled to access shops, health care, day care and day opportunities and social contact. The vast majority of these people are 75 or over, have a variety of mobility problems, and would otherwise have to rely on relatives or more expensive care services funded from the public purse.

3.5  We have major concerns that the costs involved in meeting government aspirations for personalised care services - a move which we support in principle and are in some cases providing transport for - will deter local authorities, reducing choice for service users. Indeed we have already seen a loss of some 10% over the last year in the value of such contracts (£140,000) - and a further 25% of our contracts are at risk either in the form of grants or contracts for the 2011-12 financial year.

3.6  The loss of such a large volume of contracted services, if not replaced, is likely to lead to a reduction in paid staff, a shrinking of the fleet and less ability to replace ageing vehicles. Unlike cases where services transfer after tender processes under TUPE regulations, local authorities are usually unwilling to pay for redundancy costs, which add a further twist of the financial screw on our organisation.

Transport for voluntary and community sector (VCS) groups ("Group Transport")

3.7  Another important impact of the Spending Review cuts is the potential effect on our minibus transport for other VCS groups. Where these groups are unable to supply their own volunteer drivers, many have traditionally been willing to pay the invoiced cost of a paid driver service, drawing on their own grant aid from the local authority. We now have strong indications from regular customers that their public funding is at risk and that their clients, therefore, are likely to travel less often or not at all. This will also impact negatively on the Charity's financed - we estimate by £50-100,000 in 2011-12.

3.8  We have enormous potential to solve this problem by a big push for new volunteer minibus drivers: in theory, this would enable us to reduce invoiced charges by as much as 50%. However, we are finding that the pool of available volunteers is shrinking for a number of reasons:

—  People in the early years of retirement are tending to have less time available for volunteering.

—  Congestion on the roads and perceptions of liability in the event of accidents are deterring people from coming forward.

—  The driver licensing change as of 1997 mean that younger volunteers (typically under 35) are usually limited to minibuses with lower Gross Vehicle Weights than the minibuses required by many groups.

3.9  We would suggest that the community transport needs a specific programme of support for volunteering - including improved ability to finance PCV D1 minibus driving tests for younger vehicles, which cost in the region of £1,000 after tuition and various fees.

3.10  The effects of uncoordinated VCS transport services are, we believe, of serious concern on a number of counts:

—  Fragmentation of provision could lead to lower safety standards for children and older people.

—  An overall increase in the cost to the public purse of purchasing more, less well used minibuses.

—  The dangers of lower maintenance standards and the temptation for groups to run their own minibuses well past their use-by date.

Grant aid to finance the core costs of community transport services

3.11  Community Transport has traditionally benefited from grant aid from local authorities to support its passenger transport services, as well as for our other business divisions of furniture re-use/recycling and transport-related training. The total value in 2010-11 runs to £732,000, spread across seven authorities. This funding is used to finance infrastructure costs such as rents, office costs, managerial posts, investment in buses - and in one case, direct support for low cost transport for VCS groups.

3.12  However, the prospects for retaining current levels of grant appear bleak. It needs to be noted that this trend is the result of cutbacks in support that pre-date the current spending round but which we expect to continue at a faster rate from 2011-12 onwards:

BirminghamGrant cut by 30% over the last two years
Coventry100% cut from 1 February 2011
DudleyCut by 30% over the last three years
ManchesterNo grant aid available
NewcastleGrant applied for (none currently available)
Oldham30% cut expected in 2011-12 - shopmobility service in town centre at risk
SolihullNo grant available - supported by Big Lottery to mid-2012

3.13  The Charity has already streamlined management so as to share costs between neighbouring districts. Any further significant cut in grants is likely to mean reductions in services, possible district closures, higher prices for VCS groups and/or a potential long term risk to the viability of our passenger transport services as a whole.

4.  LOCAL BUS SERVICES

4.1  The Charity does not currently operate a significant number of registered local bus services.

4.2  On December 6th 2010, the Charity commenced its first Community Bus service, run under the more flexible regime for Section 22 minibus-based service brought in under the 2008 Local Transport Act. The 649 Kings Heath service in Birmingham is supported on contract by Centro on a six-month pilot basis to replace a service deregistered by a commercial operator.

4.3  We believe that the new S22 regime is a considerable opportunity for community-based operators and fits well with the government agenda for localism. The support of the local community in the first few weeks suggests the basis for a new model for bringing on services which fit with local priorities and aspirations. At the same time, such innovation will not come about without political support and some investment especially for capital costs.

4.4  We would propose that the DfT should seek ways to develop a new "Community Challenge" scheme that incentivises communities to develop potential new local bus services in partnership with local transport authorities.

5.  CHANGES IN CONCESSIONARY FARES ARRANGEMENTS

5.1  The Community Transport charity currently has only one service, the 649 in Birmingham, which benefits from concessionary passes as of right. We also run some shopper services for older people in the Midlands where grant aid is given by Centro on the basis of a free service to older users.

5.2  We believe that the current statutory arrangements whereby the concessionary fare system is limited to registered local bus registration is fundamentally unfair to those people that cannot use timetabled service for whatever reason - lack of mobility, unavailability of an available service, etc. We would support the calls of many to end this anomaly and target the concession and financial support on those people whose mobility is most limited.

December 2010



 
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