Folk living in and near Much Wenlock will be familiar with the sight of the Friendly Bus and the Corvedale Buzzard. These minibus and car services are mostly dependent on volunteers to operate and meet the needs of the local communities they serve.
Such community transport in Shropshire provides a key safety net, enabling those people for whom public transport is not suitable or available. They provide access to essential services and facilities, such as healthcare appointments and shopping. Conventional transport services can’t help and many users have mobility issues which makes traditional public transport unsuitable
There are a number of similar schemes in Shropshire, independent of Shropshire Council in terms of their management structure and trading status. Use of such community transport schemes is based on membership, subject to meeting the eligibility criteria. All of the schemes operate dial-a-ride style services where journeys must be pre-booked. Both the Friendly Bus and the Buzzard receive only modest grants from Shropshire Council, and they haven’t increased for twelve years, so Shropshire Councillors were told earlier this week.
These community transport schemes have been formed into a Community Transport Consortium which has been awarded a number of transport contracts. This, representing about 20% of the groups’ income, has the potential to create greater sustainability for the sector and for individual groups.
It is as a result of this cross-subsidy and the Department for Transport’s suspicion that it represents unfair competition to the commercial bus operators, which occurs across the country, that the Government is carrying out a consultation.
The consultation focuses on the interpretation of whether these groups operate for a profit or whether their primary function is transport. If that is the case (and the latter is for most) then they would be required to apply for a Transport Operators Licence or relinquish the current ‘commercial’ contracts resulting in a shortfall in operating costs. In practice, this would mean that mostly volunteer drivers would be required to undertake a Passenger Service Vehicle (PSV) licence examination.
There is evidence, which is not surprising, that many drivers would view this as being not what they signed up for and they would cease volunteering and spend more time on the golf course. This would, of course, have a major impact on the sustainability of such community transport groups and I suspect many would fold. The results would be greater demands on adult social care services, doctors’ surgeries for home visits and the household budgets of the most vulnerable in our rural county.
There has been precious little publicity about this consultation until very recently and I urge you to take part in it and air your views very soon – at the latest by 4th May.