Breaking the spirit of community transport

Rather than penalising community transport operators for running successful routes, Claire Walters wants to see greater support and cooperation for these lifeline services.

Many communities are relying increasingly on community transport to have any links to the world outside their village or town. This follows continued cuts to bus subsidies across the UK - and in rural England in particular.

Many of these operators, however, are being put at risk by the legal work needed to meet EU regulations, especially in the run-up to Brexit. In one case, a community transport operator has been found not to be acting in a non-commercial way. It now has to have all its drivers certified and trained in the same way as a commercial operator, meeting all the costs and time involved. There seems to have been some ‘reinterpretation’ here of what a non-commercial service actually means.

There have, of course, been commercial operators who see community transport as having an unfair advantage, and it’s possible that there are one or two cases where these concerns are justified. But the way this announcement has been made is causing a lot of panic and uncertainty among community transport providers and the people who depend on their services. You can see the letter that was sent to all community transport commissioners at www.ctauk.org/UserFiles/Documents/170731-DfT-Letter-to-Permit-Issuers-GB.pdf

If a community transport operator finds one of their routes becoming commercially viable, there could be a case for making it a requirement that they report back to whoever commissioned the service in the first place. If it turns out that the service is commercially viable then it’s possible a local commercial operator might be interested in taking it over – we’ve seen that kind of partnership approach in areas like East Sussex.

However, in a climate of cuts to subsidies, where the stock answer from local authorities is that community transport schemes will pick up the slack when vulnerable people are being left isolated and unsupported, it seems downright perverse for community transport operators to be penalised for their success.

Perhaps we need to review the way community transport operates - iron out some of the issues surrounding restrictions on Section 19 licences, for example, and provide a bit of clarity around the use of Section 22 licences. While we’re at it, why don’t we make sure community transport is genuinely accessible to everyone, and put an end to rural concessionary pass-holders having to pay for services that are free to people in cities?

The anomalies that exist between community and commercial operators clearly need to be resolved, but forcing successful community transport operators to start behaving like their commercial counterparts will be the death knell for community transport services and that benefits no-one.

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