Last week I spoke at the Co-operative Party’s launch of their ‘People’s Bus’ campaign: an effort to champion not-for-profit services to ensure that buses across the county are accessible and inclusive for all. Below is the speech I gave at the launch:
Many thanks to the Co-operative Party for inviting me along to speak at this important event this evening.
My organisation, the Community Transport Association, is an independent charity, working across the political spectrum with anyone who wants the very best for their community and sees accessible and inclusive transport as being part of the answer to the big questions of how we are all to live, learn, work, participate and belong.
We work for a better world where people can shape and deliver their own transport solutions from the ground up, placing accessibility and inclusivity centre stage in a way that nobody else ever has.
What is community transport?
For those not familiar with community transport it’s a bit like any other form of road passenger transport: some like a taxi, transporting passengers from door to door, and some like a bus, scheduled services along a fixed and advertised route.
However, community transport is not like ordinary taxis or buses for a number of very good reasons.
Community transport is rooted in the needs of local communities – focussing on the needs of people where public transport is not accessible or even available to them and they don’t have use of a private car.
It has high levels of volunteer involvement.
It is collaborative, working with other charities, transport operators and local public bodies to advance it’s mission and make a difference for it’s communities and the people that use it’s services.
Community transport operators are not seeking to make a profit from what they do, instead focussing on achieving a social impact and community benefit. This means there is a much higher threshold for them in deciding whether and when to stop running a service which makes them a more reliable and resilient way of ensuring a broader range of transport needs can be met.
We have many strong and deep roots as a movement, but so much of what we do today has evolved in the last 30 years since bus deregulation. People often talk about those changes leaving the needs of passengers to the market, but nobody should forget that they were also about leaving the needs of some people to their community.
It is not often discussed when we talk about bus deregulation but the legislation also provided a safe and legal regulatory framework for groups of people to come together to set up non-profit services with confidence and authority that would fix holes in their local transport system that would never be filled by commercial operators and the market. But many unmet needs remain and new ones emerge all the time. As one hole closes more open up.
Pick any village, town or city and you are likely to find people whose lives and choices are diminished because they cannot get to the places they want or need to be. Transport inequality isn’t just a barrier to accessing vital services, but a barrier to people’s aspirations and achievements.
This is the older person feeling isolated because the bus that used to take them to the shops has stopped running, the young person who cannot find a job they can get to which will make the most of their talents, the carer who has had too much time off work already to take her mum to her weekly treatment at the hospital.
Withdrawal of commercial bus services and cuts to supported bus budgets are likely to have a big impact on the users of those services. At risk is people’s ability to live independently, participate in their community and to access education, employment and essential services. The problem affects all ages and socio-economic groups, but hardest hit are those without the means or ability to invest in their own private transport.
We know that many community transport organisations are facing assumptions that their services will grow to fill the gaps that commercial providers leave when their services are withdrawn, or replace previously subsidized routes, sometimes because community transport is seen as a low cost, or even no-cost alternative. It does require investment, but we know that even modest amounts can reduce bigger demands on the public purse when the costs of isolation, unemployment and poor health is counted.
In a survey we carried out in the last two weeks we found our members believe funding is likely to be cut while also believing demand for their services will remain the same or increase. We found varying relationships with councils and bus operators at a time that there is an ever more pressing need for collaboration. We found that around 34% of respondents have worked with their local authority in at least one area they operate, in response to the withdrawal of services by commercial bus providers. All of this amidst a dwindling transport budget matched by cuts to local authority spending. We simply cannot keep being asked to do more and more with less and less.
So how might things be different?
The People’s Bus Campaign calls on the non-profit model to be grown and main-streamed. We agree there is plenty of evidence from the success of non-profit bus services already and there is a lot more that can be done.
The regulations already exist that provide permits to allow organisations to run local, not-for-profit bus services along registered routes that can carry the general public for the benefit of the community. They often use smaller vehicles, enabling them to operate at a lower cost and often making it more cost-effective to run services with low levels of patronage, such as routes serving rural villages. We know of around 250 organisations delivering these types of services in communities around the UK – often focussing on meeting small scale needs that make a massive difference for the users of those services. A good example is in Ilfracombe where the community transport operators worked with the local job centre to arrange a service that could provide transport home to people working at night in the hospitality sector.
We also see some ambitious plans in some organisations to grow their model on a much larger scale – an example being the £10m social investment that HCT group has secured which will include private sector acquisitions which then get flipped into social enterprises.
We are also thinking a great deal about the role the community can play in complementing rail services as well as bus services, enabling community transport to work as extensions to the end of lines, to enable a potentially smoother and safer completion of a whole journey.
Finally, I want to look at what opportunities the Buses Bill may provide.
Our vision is of a more integrated transport network built from the ground up. We think the Government deserves a good hearing on its ideas for devolving more decisions about local transport. However, many people and organisations are finding it hard to listen when faced with the reality of cuts to local government funding and their impact on socially necessary services as well as community transport.
We want to use the new impetus for greater integration arising from the Buses Bill to lead to the community having a greater say over what their local transport is like and, where they can, design their own transport solutions with accessibility and inclusivity built into them from the beginning.
This means ensuring that community and community led provision has a place at the table in a meaningful way in any local governance arrangements and recognition of social value in any commissioning or frameworks for providers.
This cannot be the same group of franchise bus services via partnership mechanisms which integrate community transport into the overall bus network.
There should be some scope for imaginative and innovative approaches to be designed or offered in an area. Franchising should enable innovation in the market in terms of business models – for example, consortium bids and joint franchising with larger operators, as well as chances for local communities to develop and trial new routes which may currently be outside of the tendered bus network.
The potential and possibilities for community transport, in its different forms, of offering a more reliable and resilient model for meeting a greater number and range of transport needs are immense.
So, rather than being last resort, once everyone else has had a go, perhaps a community-led not for profit solutions could be the first and best place to start the conversation about how we better connect people and places, particularly in our most vulnerable and isolated communities.