Threat to the UK’s Community Transport Services?
Every day in Powys, local community transport schemes’ minibuses provide essential journeys for people who have no other means of getting out. These act as a lifeline to let people attend health appointments, do their shopping, meet friends and come together in support groups. This is now under threat following an announcement in July by the Department for Transport (DfT) which interprets a 2009 European Regulation in an unforeseen and unintended way.
In the UK there has been a long-standing ‘light touch’ licensing regime for non-profit operation, exempting it from full professional licensing standards in order to keep costs as low as possible. However, a small lobby group of UK commercial operators has argued, and the DfT has accepted, that European professional standards should apply to all minibus services provided by charitable groups primarily set up to provide transport.
In effect this means that schemes would need to meet the same licensing requirements as any other commercial bus provider, with the additional driver training and vehicle maintenance facilities which such licensing requires. This issue affects all operators of vehicles with more than 8 passenger seats for whom transport is their primary purpose.
This change will affect a large part of the community transport sector, including:
- Door to door dial-a-ride services
- Minibuses enabling members of social support groups to attend meetings
- Minibuses shared for efficiency across several community organisations
If the DfT implement’s this new approach, then across the UK:
- Many smaller community transport schemes may have to stop operating. Initial surveys have shown that many older volunteers would not wish to continue if they had to obtain and maintain additional professional driver qualifications.
- There is a likelihood that some schemes may decide to switch from minibuses to operating MPVs and cars to avoid the regulatory requirements. Apart from the extra costs this will cause this it would also affect the nature and passenger capacity of the services they can provide.
- Schemes that opt to meet the professional standards will be faced with significant additional costs. The registration and training costs for each driver is estimated at £1,500. This is likely to be unaffordable for many schemes and there are no dedicated funds being made available to help schemes meet these costs.
The inevitable risk is that there could be a significant reduction in the scale and scope of operations. There is no safety or service quality case for this.
There are 10 transport schemes in Powys which are potentially affected by this issue. Together they provide 81,000 passenger journeys a year for some of the most isolated and vulnerable people in our county.
There has already been a variety of responses by Local Authorities in the UK to the DfT’s announcement. Some have reacted by withdrawing or suspending contracts with community transport schemes whilst others have adopted a more measured approach. However, it is pleasing to report that Powys County Council has to date refrained from instigating any actions resulting from the DfT’s announcement.
PAVO is currently seeking the views of community transport schemes in Powys about the impact that changes to licensing arrangements could have upon their services and financial viability and the consequences it would then have upon the many thousands of people who use their services. This information will be shared to help inform decision makers and support any necessary lobbying activity.
A UK-wide group of concerned community transport operators and professionals is developing a national campaign to: raise awareness at a political level and argue the case for community transport schemes; obtain expert legal opinion on the DfT’s announcement, and provide clarity and advice to schemes and service commissioners in the wake of the DfT’s action. You can find more about this here.
If you have any queries about this issue or require further information please contact Sarah Leyland Morgan PAVO at sarah.leyland(at)pavo.org.uk or 01597 822191.
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