The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has published ‘Going the Extra Mile: Connecting Businesses and Rural Communities.’
We have written this summary because many community transport operators, through demand-responsive services and community buses, will contribute to the well-being of local rural economies through connecting people to businesses and public services, carrying passengers between rural locations and providing employment opportunities in rural areas.
The report analyses where FSB believes poor connectivity is harming small businesses in rural locations and makes a number of recommendations on improving transport connectivity. We hope this report will support community transport operators to make the case for local investment in services that enable more people to reach businesses in rural locations.
The quality of the road network is the dominant issue for small rural businesses. 89% of small businesses place a high value on the road network. Half suggested they believed the quality of the road network and public transport system had declined in recent years.
Private car use remains a dominant feature of rural life. 95% of respondents said cars were important to their business, but less than one-third said felt the same about buses and trains.
The top three issues cited by businesses in rural or remote rural locations were congestion, potholes and the cost of fuel.
Devolution to local and regional bodies offered opportunities. This could lead to improvements to strategic planning (especially of infrastructure projects), ring-fencing of funding for transport and greater accountability over the road network.
The following recommendations are likely to be of interest to community transport operators:
- Regional authorities should take into account the needs of rural communities when negotiating current and future devolution settlements.
- Local and combined authorities should be given greater powers over transport spending in order to improve the coordination and integration of transport planning and delivery.
- Transport funding in local government budgets should be ring-fenced, in addition to keeping fuel costs low.
- A challenge fund should be introduced to increase the use of innovative transport solutions; including smart ticketing and demand responsive transport supported by greater use of open data.
- The Government’s Total Transport pilot schemes should be properly evaluated and expanded if found to be successful.
CTA’s thoughts on the FSB report
We support the health of local businesses
One of our priorities is showing how community transport supports the health of local economies and employment and this stands out in rural areas. Here’s one example. In 2015 nearly £2.2 million was spent in high streets in Devon by passengers using community transport services, which showed that for every pound invested in those services by Devon County Council £9 was spent in the local economy. This might not make the difference in whether a local business remains viable but, to coin a phrase, every little helps.
Making life easier for private car users is not the only answer
The importance placed on private cars by small business leads the report to focus on the quality of the road network. We feel more attention needs to be given to the growing group of rural residents who cannot access or afford a private car and don’t have a local bus service available because of withdrawal of services. This is not just about older and disabled people. Many younger people are put-off from driving by the costs, which might influence their decision to move to live and work in urban areas.
Infrastructure investment has to be more evenly spread
We consistently argue that infrastructure investment needs to be more evenly spread and not just focussed on big cities and inter-urban transport links, important as these things are. We agree with FSB that funding should support better infrastructure in rural locations making transport accessible and inclusive for all, which is vital for building healthy local economies and communities.
Give devolution a good hearing
We are pleased to see FSB advocate for a proportionate approach to devolved spending that takes into account the role of rural economies. We hope that through the development of further devolution agreements it will be possible to build a transport network that is responsive to community needs, and furthers the importance of an inclusive and accessible transport network.
At the moment we are working on the Bus Services Bill which provides an opportunity for us to demonstrate the importance of community transport in the overall transport mix and make the case for greater involvement in more integrated local networks.
We’ll also be trying to work more closely with the FSB to look at how the economic benefits for rural small businesses from investment in community transport can be more widely understood and valued. To help get us started, if you have any data from your own services like the Devon example above, please send it to James our Policy and Public Affairs Executive at James@ctauk.org
Also let James know if you want to stay in touch about the Bus Services Bill.