Proposed changes to regulation of community transport are set to be felt the most in rural areas. The threat there is enormous. One Suffolk-based CTO explains its stance and what’s likely to happen to it
In the current maelstrom surrounding community transport, headlines have been dominated by the DfT, the Community Transport Association and other bodies that are responsible for forming opinion.
Perhaps overlooked are views from other parties that have just as much investment in the issue: The small CTOs that make up the bulk of the sector. Their individual voices have seldom been heard.
Halesworth is a small town in rural Suffolk. It is home to Halesworth Area Community Transport (HACT), a CTO with three buses and which is – with one part-time exception – staffed by volunteers.
HACT has paid close attention to what has come out of the legal challenge from the Bus and Coach Association (BCA) concerning EU Regulation 1071/2009. Its management attended one of the DfT’s consultation events and they are well informed on the matter.
In an over-simplified way, HACT represents much of the community transport sector. There are countless rural CTOs just like it across Britain.
Its funding is from donations, concessionary pass reimbursement, BSOG and short-distance community hires. If the DfT’s proposals go through as planned and with no exemptions, it will find itself staring down the barrel of a gun.
“If that happens, we will cease to operate,” says Secretary Doug Gray. HACT recently convened a meeting of its management committee to inform them of that possibility.
If HACT does close, a number of people in Halesworth will be left stranded. No interest has been shown by the area’s handful of commercial operators in taking on the Hoppa service that HACT runs around the town.
“We run that on the back of hires and other income. We don’t make any money and there are no high salaries here; there are also no returns to shareholders. Everything that we make goes towards keeping the Hoppa operating,” says Administrator Julia Howell.
In Halesworth, the DfT’s failure to understand community transport is amply demonstrated. If it follows through with a one-size-fits-all solution to the current problem, it stands to put scores of organisations like HACT out of the game, once and for all.
But to HACT, it’s not entirely a surprise that the DfT is pursuing a policy that is at odds with what community transport in its traditional sense represents.
HACT secured money for a new vehicle via the Community Minibus Fund, but it was not entirely happy with how the process was handled. “When we bid for funding, we made it clear what we wanted. Then, we were told what we were going to get,” says Doug.
“We argued that we had won based on what we had submitted. We got what we wanted eventually, but that gave us an idea of what the DfT thought about community transport.”
No tenders here
HACT is not in competition with commercial operators. It holds no contracts and it its affairs do not in any way conflict with Suffolk’s for-profit businesses. That’s why Doug, Julia and Treasurer Brian Howard believe that a different approach is required for rural CTOs.
“The DfT seems to think that all CTOs are the same, and if that one can be forced into becoming a commercial business, they all can,” says Julia.
Like other parties involved in the dispute, HACT believes that the DfT has known of the problem that forms the basis of the BCA’s complaint for a number of years, and that instead of dealing with it effectively, it was placed on the ‘too difficult’ pile.
In particular, a failure to challenge large CTOs that have grown into major operations on the back of low operating costs and unpaid drivers is seen as central to the current problem. Had they been dealt with earlier, there may have been an opportunity to head off what became the BCA’s argument.
“How can you justify a CTO that runs 150 vehicles?” asks Doug. “We come at it from a different angle. We have three minibuses: One was donated to us, one we won via the Community Minibus Fund, and the other we purchased. There is no comparison.”
There is also an argument that certain local authorities (LAs) must shoulder some of the blame. Too often, they have taken the cheap option without looking in to it too deeply, and they have issued contracts when they should have known better.
But on that, HACT can understand why LAs pursued that avenue. They are under tremendous funding pressure from central government. If there is an option that saves money and is likely to go unchallenged, who can really blame them?
HACT regards the DfT’s consultation as fatally flawed. Not only do Brian, Doug and Julia see it as a done deal, they view the costings element as grossly miscalculated.
That centres on the social aspect in rural areas if community transport ceases. It has not been taken into account, they say; the existing social bill is huge, and the isolation and associated problems that will be exacerbated by the end of CTOs will add to it.
“In the overall scheme of things we are a tiny component, but we take a lot of people out of the scope of social care,” says Julia.
The Hoppa is, she adds, as much a friends’ club as it is a service. Elderly residents use it not only to reach the town centre, but also to socialise.
In the wider rural landscape, there is also a consideration of hospital access. If those CTOs providing that cease to exist, the burden will fall onto NHS transport services and ambulances, at significantly increased cost.
What is heartening for CTOs like HACT is that they see a degree of support from the commercial sector as a whole. In Suffolk, it has also shown surprise at the proposed changes.
“It has been pleasing to hear what commercial operators are saying. They have no interest in taking on our work and they don’t see why things need to change,” says Brian.
One of the causes of the DfT’s lack of understanding of the situation that rural community transport faces is a failure to engage. “Staff at the DfT don’t know how it is on the ground,” says Doug. “How can they know how this will affect people in Halesworth or any other rural location without speaking to them, or speaking to operators? They can’t. But they are pressing ahead regardless.”
Drivers are central to proposed changes to permit use. A Driver CPC will be required by those who currently do not hold one, and simply booking that training and requiring them to attend will not wash in many cases.
HACT has 30 volunteers; most of them are drivers. Many do the odd shift, perhaps one or two per week. Others do one day per month. “If we’re talking about the monetary value of our drivers, it is £70,000 per annum,” says Brian. “That’s the value of their time if they come with category D1 licences, have completed MiDAS training and are insured on our vehicles.”
Multiply that across most of the country’s CTOs and the cost of drivers alone is substantial.
Ensuring that they all hold DCPCs would be another huge hit; by definition, rural CTOs are likely to be far from the nearest training provider and their drivers will potentially require residential courses. The total cost could easily exceed £1,500 per driver, says HACT.
“The problem with that is whether our drivers would even entertain gaining a DCPC. They are here to do a voluntary task. They do not want to be rewarded for it and they do not want to have to jump through hoops to be allowed to do it,” says Brian.
“In a hypothetical situation, we believe that most of them would cease driving. Entering the realms of DCPC and driving tests is not what they are here for. That alone would do a huge amount of damage to rural CTOs.”
Do not pass go?
The potential impact of the worst-case scenario for rural CTOs like HACT is clear. They will be decimated, if not wiped out altogether.
Both sides of the argument agree that the DfT is at the root of that. It has not kept up with changes to regulations and it did not address the issue when it had the chance to, seven years ago. Now, the sector is where it is, and it faces a challenge to its existence.
If the proposals go ahead as outlined, the DfT will enter a one-way street. “We could close down as a result of this, and then in two years’ time someone may think: ‘Whoops. That was a silly idea’,” says Brian.
“How do you reverse that? How do you establish community transport again? You can’t. Volunteers have gone, vehicles have gone and passengers have gone. There is no way back if this goes through as the DfT would like it to.”
Those are sage words. Few people argue that change is required in areas where the EU Regulation is being flouted. But in places like Halesworth, and hundreds of other rural locations, things are different. It may already be too late for the DfT to accept that.