Matt Rodda Member of Parliament for Reading East
Bus services across the country are under grave threat, but you probably already knew that. In fact, you have probably seen the effects in your town, village or community day on day, year on year since austerity began in 2010.
When these services are cut, it is inevitably the people who rely on them most who suffer the most, and communities have had to become resilient to changes or closures.
This is where community transport has stepped in but this could be about to change. The often-small, locally run, charitable minibus services that take our children on school trips and older people to lunch clubs could cease to exist in the next few months if proposed guidance from the Department for Transport comes into effect.
The plan, under which community transport drivers would need advanced driving licences at a cost of up to £1,700, risks forcing hundreds of charities and other organisations including schools and sports clubs to stop providing transport for their community due to the prohibitive cost of doing so.
Last year government budgets to subsidise bus routes were reduced by over £20m and 301 services were adjusted or removed completely. Public transport is withering before our eyes.
But people still have to travel. Older people in England take more than 22 million community transport journeys every year. This is a lifeline to the outside world, so why is the government about to take it away? To make matters worse, the policy seems to have been based on a serious misunderstanding of the sector.
According to the Community Transport Association, the Department for Transport’s costings are based on the assumption that more than 50 per cent of community transport drivers already hold a permit required to meet the new rules. The real figure is closer to six per cent.
This discrepancy is set to cost the sector an estimated £120 million and will affect 95 per cent of all providers. Quite the price for getting your sums wrong.
When you also consider the fact that this government is supposed to be serious about tackling loneliness, the adoption of these guidelines seems even more baffling.
Why announce a minister for loneliness in January and introduce regulations that threaten a lifeline for older and lonely people in the summer? For many people community transport is the only interaction with the outside world.
If this decision is taken the concept of a cross-governmental approach to tackling loneliness will be left in tatters.
The Department for Transport’s response to consultation submissions by charities and transport providers, which was released on Friday, is lacklustre and makes for a frustrating read.
The fact is that most small community transport providers will not be able to afford the price of obtaining an advanced driving licence. Why does the consultation response only dedicate two lines to this pressing issue?
Again, this either comes down to incompetence or there are other reasons that are not being made clear to the public, the providers or the beneficiaries of community transport.
So, I am asking the government to take a step back, reconsider and re-evaluate with competence and compassion.