Community-run transport services are vital in rural constituencies like High Peak where there is an ageing population, many people suffering rural isolation, and little public transport to take people to essential services such as medical appointments which are usually over 10 miles away, and often nearer to 20 miles.
We have some fantastic Community Volunteer Services who organise a fleet of volunteer drivers who take people who do not own or cannot use a vehicle to essential medical appointments, to shops and on social outings. These services enable people to live independently in their own homes, combat social isolation, and save thousands of pounds of hospital transport. Drivers offer support, care and friendship to their passengers, getting to know them, and able to keep a regular watch on both their physical and mental health.
For many people who live on their own, often housebound, their regular trip with a friendly driver gives them something to look forward to, and their chat in the car helps to keep them positive in terms of their mental health, and a positive outlook helps them to maintain their independence in their own home.
This consultation needs to recognise the very substantial tangible benefits of community transport, but also the huge intangible benefits that help to keep frail and often isolated people more happy, more healthy and more independent.
Currently, not-for-profit organisations who run community transport can use section 19 or section 22 permits rather than a more expensive commercial operator’s licence (PSV O licence). This is in recognition of the fact that they are not making a profit from their transport services, and are very important to ensure local communities are not left in isolation.
In addition, they are also able to use training such as the Minibus Drivers’ Awareness Scheme (MiDAS) to ensure their transport service is safe and legal. MiDAS is specialised training for not-for-profit organisations with a practical pass/fail element, and provides an alternative to Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (Driver CPC), which is required for drivers in commercial organisations.
It is vital that this consultation notes the importance of the principle that not-for-profit organisations are exempt from the need to comply with the regulations intended for commercial organisations.
The decline in commercial bus services over recent years is deeply worrying for residents living in and around the High Peak. , Buses are relied on by many people who are in danger of social isolation in rural areas but are now few and far between except along the main A6 route into Manchester. Derbyshire County Council have indicated that even more buses will be reviewed in the coming months.
Community Transport, which is a lifeline for many people in High Peak requiring transport to medical appointments or for shopping, is threatened by the proposals in this consultation.
In High Peak, community transport operators are often also providers of social care services, especially to people who are elderly, isolated and disabled. The motivation of these operators is community spirit, compassion and philanthropy, not profit.
Whilst the Government states that the majority of community transport operators should not be affected by any clarification of the rules, this is not proving to be the case. By accepting a premise that any transaction in any form makes something commercial, the proposed changes will prevent many more community organisations from operating than the Department intended, not just affecting those who compete for contracts.
I am concerned that the Department for Transport’s view appears to have developed in a way which contradicts this principle. Rather than differentiate between true commercial services and those that fill gaps that the market is unable to deliver, the Department’s presentation for their consultation workshops states: “If a transport service is provided by an organisation in return for payment, that service should be treated as commercial, even where the organisation is not-for profit.” Not all services where a payment is made are truly commercial.
This guidance and impact assessment suggest changes that will alter the way that not-for-profit organisations can run their transport, and will mean that an estimated:
· 28% of all organisations running not-for-profit transport will need a commercial operator’s licence to continue running their services.
· 84% of all organisations running not-for-profit transport will have to ensure their staff and volunteers obtain a commercial minibus driving qualification if they want to continue to drive their vehicles.
· 95% of all organisations running not-for-profit transport will be affected by these changes and required to spend large amounts of money to become compliant.
If the proposed guidance stands, the total estimated impact to community organisations will be £399 million. This will mean that many of the non-for-profit organisations will no longer be able to afford to run their services.
In my constituency, I have been contacted by members of a community transport group in Buxton, who estimate that the changes will cost them £10,000 and potentially make their very valuable service unviable or make it too expensive for their poorer customers to afford. It is important that the Department for Transport does not overlook the importance of preventing this from happening to community transport groups, both locally and nationally.
This marks a worrying divergence from the way of operating for not-for-profit organisations, which had been supported in legislation and encouraged by both Labour and Conservative governments for nearly 30 years. This arrangement has successfully ensured that people in our communities can still get about when public transport cannot support them, as is so often the case in High Peak. I hope this consultation will note the gravity of the consequences.
Questions to the Department of Transport
1. The Department’s Impact Assessment says it does not expect there to be any social impact, equalities impact or impact on health and wellbeing.
Given that many community transport organisations can demonstrate that these changes will lead to them closing services and some vulnerable people losing their only form of transport, how can the Government stand by a claim that there will be no impact at all?
I ask that the Department publish the evidence that led to this conclusion so that it is open to scrutiny.
2. The Government is proposing to make charities that want to run transport seek the permission of every commercial operator in their area before they can bid for a local authority contract, or deliver their service.
A community transport group based in Hayfield in my constituency were forced to stop shuttling students to and from a local train station, due to complaints that they were undercutting a commercial operator.
Can the Department reassure communities, such as those in Hayfield that rely on these services, how they will prevent commercial operators using this veto in a vexatious way that is absolutely nothing to do with creating fair competition?
3. Given local authority tendering exercises state that there should be no discussion between operators in determining the tender, how does the Department propose this to be practicable?
I hope the points made will be given due consideration and I would be grateful for responses to the questions posed .
Ruth George MP
Member of Parliament for High Peak