Update 2 May 2018
Shropshire Council has joined community transport and bus user groups in writing to the Department for Transport to protest against proposed regulations that will make it more difficult to operate the scheme.
Councillor Cecilia Motley told the cabinet on Wednesday that community transport is “absolutely vital” It is vitally the recognises how important community transport is at filling in the gaps in public transport, especially for those that do not have their own transport. Councillor Madge Shineton talked about the problems on the 292 route between Ludlow and Kidderminster and suggested that it might be necessary to put a community transport service in place because of its unreliability. Councillor Alan Moseley pointed out that the council should also write to itself to complain about the £1.7 million cuts it plans to make to the public transport bus.
The Communities Overview Committee is to set up a task and finish group to examine the future of community transport schemes.
Original article 20 April 2018
Throughout Shropshire, and across the country, minibuses and cars are ferrying people to GPs, hospitals, shops and to meet their friends. The benefits are huge. Community transport services in Shropshire make more than 100,000 passenger journeys a year, with passenger spending averaging £30 a trip. The of community transport benefits in reducing social isolation and promoting wellbeing are substantial. But a threat is looming. A new interpretation by civil servants of EU regulations may make many community transport schemes unviable. That will harm rural and vulnerable communities across Shropshire.
From time to time, the government announces a “bonfire of red tape”. Then the regulations creep back in. That’s often due to a genuine need. Regulation can balance competing interests, health and safety against profit margins for example. It will be a while before we know whether the Grenfell fire was so fatally destructive due to a lack of regulations or the failure to apply to apply them. But we already know that regulations will play a role in the verdict. Some regulations have unexpected consequences, especially when they are applied by over-zealous bureaucrats. The Windrush scandal exemplifies this.
When regulations don’t get screaming headlines in the popular media, they go unnoticed. I certainly didn’t know anything about EU Regulation 1071/2009 until the agenda was published for the Community Overview Committee on Monday. This regulation applies to the operators of road haulage and road passenger transport. It aims to boost standards and safety, including “prevent unscrupulous firms from seeking to gain market advantages by skimping on safety and working conditions.” Nothing wrong with that.
But these are European-wide rules. They make great sense for HGVs and bus and coach companies. When it comes to volunteer transport in rural areas they present significant hurdles.
There is no competition to community transport services in this county because commercial companies can’t afford to run services to small villages and hamlets and local authorities can’t afford to subsidise them. That’s true across much of the UK. But a small number of commercial transport companies have complained about unfair competition. That is why the DfT is consulting on tightening up the rules.
The previous interpretation of the rules accepted that community transport groups worked to serve the community, not to make a profit. That meant their operations were subject to lighter touch regulations, trusting to community oversight to ensure they have a safe service. That light touch regulation has now been challenged.
That challenge began three years ago in a letter to the former secretary of state for transport Patrick McLoughlin, alleges that many that many community transport (CT) operators “are commonly engaged in providing transport services to private operator for excursions out of their local area as well as proving bus services in rural and isolated communities where a traditional commercial service is not available.” It claimed that many CT operators compete with private operators in tendering for school contracts from local councils. “The work on which they are engaged is clearly commercial.”
Most CT operators are financed through local authority grants, donations, fundraising and charges to customers. Some take on contracts, for example for school runs and day trips, to cross subsidise their community work.
CT drivers have up to now been exempt from needing a Passenger Service Vehicle (PSV) licence. Their vehicles might need a lower standard of MOT than commercial buses. Drivers do not have to hold a Driver Certificate of Professional Competence.
That could change. The Department for Transport, faced with a threat of a legal challenge, has decided that it has been interpreting the EU regulation incorrectly. It is proposing tightening up the rules though many smaller community transport operators will remain exempt.
How will this affect community transport services in Shropshire? There are nine services listed by Shropshire Council. Eight of these are members of the Shropshire Community Transport Consortium. The annual income of this group is £700,000 a year, of which one fifth is classified as commercial income. When 1,330 hours of volunteer time supplied by drivers, fundraisers and managers are factored in, this rises to £1.1 million, of which one pound in eight comes from commercial income.
The eight community transport services have 3,600 members and provide 131,000 passenger journeys a year. Nine out of ten of the trips are use minibuses. The others are car journeys, often to take people to GPs or hospitals.
A survey of more than 300 passengers by the Shropshire Community Transport Consortium suggests the average spend is much higher, £33 a trip, because people use the service to do their weekly shop. That amounts to a local economic benefit of £3.36 million.
The benefits of community transport are much broader. Loneliness and isolation damage wellbeing. That increases health and social care costs. Nationally it is estimated that community transport could reduce the social care and NHS bill by £0.75 billion a year.
The benefits of community transport are clear. The problem is how to keep them going – and expand them if needed – at a time of heavy cuts to local authority budgets. That’s why some community transport operators have turned to bidding for contracts to ensure they have enough money to keep going.
Shropshire Council needs to form a view on this very quickly as the Department for Transport consultation closes on 4 May. That’s why the Communities Overview Community will be discussing it on Monday. Viv Parry and I will be there to argue the case for ensuring that the excellent community transport services in Shropshire are not damaged by this move.
The officer recommendation is to set up a task and finishing group to look at this issue. This working group will need to act very quickly to help secure the future of Shropshire’s community transport services.
. The four aims of EU Regulation 1071/2009 are: to achieve greater harmonisation of standards between Member States, particularly as regards levels of financial standing required and the standard of professional competence expected; to facilitate the right of establishment in other Member States and the mutual recognition of professional status; to improve the overall professional standing and quality of road transport; to prevent unscrupulous firms from seeking to gain market advantages by skimping on safety and working conditions.
. The Ludlow Traveller is not a member of the Shropshire Community Transport Consortium. The Corvedale Buzzard is operated by Shrewsbury Dial a Ride.