Looking back on the Westminster Conference- The Future of Community Transport Regulation

Tom Banner

In our third blog looking back at the Westminster Conference, we’re going to be focusing on discussions over the future of community transport regulation: an issue and a concern which is central to many of our members and those involved in the community transport sector.

It is also an issue over which there is confusion and perhaps controversy. For the final session of the day, therefore, we sought to give our members access to key decision-makers in the Department for Transport and to hear what they, and others, had to say.

You can find our other recaps of the Westminster Conference here:

Reimagining Local Transport

Transport Innovation

Bill Freeman, Chief Executive, Closing Remarks

Stephen Fidler, Department for Transport

The afternoon’s discussion on the future of community transport regulation started with Stephen Fidler, Deputy Director, Buses and Taxis Division for the Department for Transport.

Stephen started his talk by saying that it was a privilege for him to come to this event “and meet so many people who make a difference out in the real world.”

“I’m humbled,” he said, “standing in front of this group of people and realising what a difference they make to people’s lives.” It’s easy, Stephen admitted, to sit in Whitehall and think of things solely in terms of policy rather than the people those policies affect.

Stephen started his presentation by saying that the Department for Transport is committed to working with CTA as they work out the new regulations and legislation surrounding transport. Both Patrick McLoughlin MP, the Secretary of State for Transport, and Andrew Jones MP, Under Secretary of State for Transport, he assured the audience, understand the importance of community transport.

Stephen moved on to discussing the DfT’s procurement of minibuses for the community transport sector, assuring members that they were making every effort to get in touch with every organisation to let them know about their progress in procuring new vehicles. Whilst he stressed that such a process takes time, he did give those in the audience contact details to enable them to get in touch if their request was particularly urgent. “I’m keen that we work on getting these buses to you,” Stephen said, “and the team are working flat out to achieve that.”

Stephen then moved onto the upcoming Buses Bill, describing the DfT’s thoughts on devolution and franchising powers in more detail before giving a timeline on when he thinks  the bill will take effect. The aim, he said, is for the bill to be published and introduced to Parliament in February, getting royal assent in early 2017.

The Westminster Conference took place on the same day as the government’s spending review and during his presentation Stephen was given the go ahead to announce details on the government’s plans for transport funding. The spending review, he revealed, will protect the current funding for buses, including £250 million for BSOG funding. (You can find out more details of what the spending review means for the community transport sector here.)

“I hope this brings home to you,” he said, “the kind of importance that ministers are putting on buses at the moment and particularly in the CT sector. Hopefully that’s some recognition for all your hard work.”

After Stephen had finished speaking, Bill Freeman, Chief Executive of the Community Transport Association, then asked the audience for their thoughts on Stephen’s presentation. The discussion was an interesting and varied one with questions and comments relating to how we make sure that local authorities spend their budgets in a way that is in the best interests of community transport; where the traffic commissioners’ permit system will fit into the new arrangements; and further discussion on certain elements of the franchising arrangements.

Gareth Blackett, Community Transport Association

Gareth Blackett, the Community Transport Association’s Director of Policy and Practice, continued the discussion by laying out the priorities of the CTA when it comes to any future legislation surrounding transport and the regulation of community transport.

Firstly, he said, “the passenger should be at the heart of the process.” Echoing Stephen Fidler’s earlier point, Gareth said that it’s easy to lose sight of CT’s principal beneficiaries when looking at these sorts of issues on a national policy level. Any redesign of services, he stressed, should be based around the needs and interests of the passenger.

The second priority is one which Gareth believed was shared both by the Department for Transport as well as the European Commission. Community transport has to be valued as a unique and vital service to communities. Having spent time with colleagues from the DfT, as well as recently traveling to Brussels, Gareth was confident that the community transport sector in the UK is valued and seen as unique.

Thirdly, we need to have a positive definition of community transport. Too often, CT is defined by what it’s not (“it’s not a taxi service, not a local bus service.”) We need, said Gareth, to start talking about what community transport is: a way of providing inclusive and accessible transport to those who need it.

Finally, Gareth stressed that any changes to regulation should always result in an improvement of operating standards. “Any changes to the licensing regime need to send the quality of the sector in one direction…they need to enhance the quality of the service to improve the passenger experience.”

Rachel Milne, DAB Driver Training / Dial a Community Bus

Bill then introduced Rachel Milne, General Manager at DAB Driver Training / Dial a Community Bus, to talk about what she felt the impact and benefits have been from her organisation moving into a position where they’re working under both charity and commercial regimes.

Dial-a-Community Bus, Rachel said, grew from a small organisation with one bus, run by off-duty policemen, to a successful community transport charity with multiple vehicles. However, like other community transport providers, “we were starting to hear those jungle drums and see the funding was starting to get slightly tighter.”

Long conversations on how to generate enough sustainable income to support the organisation led to the decision to create a commercial arm which wold develop income for the charity. The charity was the tree, Rachel said, and the commercial arm’s various endeavours were the roots. “If you lost a root, the tree would still exist.” The creation of a commercial interest company served to protect the charity, providing it with more sustainable income so it wasn’t reliant on a dwindling sources of funding.

It wasn’t always straightforward, Rachel stressed: “You make mistakes!” But, all in all, it has been relatively easy, she said. They have had the help and support of the council and local authorities because they were clear on what they want to run, how they wanted to run it, and the benefit it would have for their charity.

Rachel also talked about her experience with the need for the organisation’s commercial arm to work under O Licences whilst also suggesting a new form of licence for CT operators thinking of doing the same: a CTO licence. It would allow CT operators to run contracts at specific levels, such as school work, ASN schools and rural local services where there is little or no competition. It would also ensure parity with Restricted O/Special Restricted O licences, meaning that CT operators wouldn’t need financial standing or a transport manager but would need maintenance level agreements.

“At the end of the day,” she said, explaining the need for maintenance level agreements, “the passenger is at the heart of the transport we provide and the heart of the reason we do it. Our duty of care to those clients is higher than anyone else’s… these clients are vulnerable and therefore our duty of care is very, very high.”

Following Rachel’s presentation, the audience shared their thoughts on Rachel’s experience and on her proposal for a CTO licence. The point was raised that many CT operators already run with a maintenance agreement and at exceedingly high quality, but that a CTO licence would allow them to continue to do this whilst protecting them against attacks from commercial operators. “I for one would welcome that being taken and really lobbied for,” said one participant.

Bill Freeman, Closing Remarks

The conference was brought to a close by Bill Freeman, Chief Executive of the Community Transport Association, whose closing remarks are worth listening to or reading in full. They can be found here.

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