Accessible Transport West Somerset- “You can do it, you can go and sort them out”

Barbara Middleton Photo

I’d told my 24 year old daughter that if she wanted to live in the style to which her mother had got her accustomed, she would either have to become an entrepreneur or go to university. She chose university, and I chose to pay her rent. This strained the post-retirement coffers just a bit and I looked around for a part time job. I would have been quite happy with Tesco’s till, but I’d trained as an advisor for the local advice bureau and one day, our manager suddenly said ‘You can do it, you can go and sort them out’.

And that was it. The start of my twilight years in Community Transport and overnight, I’d become a CT transport manager at Accessible Transport West Somerset. I’m an obsessive about most forms of transport but this was something new. Fairly scary too. I was about to learn very quickly indeed.

In 2005, under a directive from our Somerset Community Transport Officer to severely sort things out or else, our local Council for Voluntary Services had separated the ailing community transport service off, formed a new charity for it and had employed a development worker, Sue, to inspire improvements in the service

We occupied an old warehouse, cold and austere, with a toilet floor covered in green mould. The path of our progress was afterwards measured by that toilet floor. There were 3 rusty filthy buses, and one Winter afternoon, an outing for a local care home to a Christmas party was about to come to grief when there wasn’t a scheduled  driver for the journey. To save the day, I set off with Sue to collect the passengers and we found them, shivering miserably in posh outfits with their zimmer frames on the doorstep because we were late. Then Sue tried to use the tail lift but it was stuck because it was rusty. She banged and persuaded it until it worked, we loaded everyone, and cheerily set off for a delayed afternoon of fun.

This kind of thing fires you into knowing what and how things need to improve.  Soon you realize how utterly needed and vital community transport is. How it’s not just the journey, but it’s people’s lives : the independence, the friendship, the happiness, and the ‘life going on as normal’ that it brings to people who need a little bit of help. And how it keeps people busy, healthy and out of care homes. This area has the highest ratio of older people in the UK. Here, there are only 47 people to each square kilometer, rurality and isolation is the name of the game, there are only 5 public bus routes left across 725 square kilometres, so community transport is ideal and economical for reaching small communities. Mostly, there’s not a shop for miles.

Very pretty but without community transport, isolation could easily kill you.

Bit by bit, we raised money to make things better. Over 2 years, we searched for and found better premises where the buses could be kept, washed and maintained round the corner. Here, the toilet floor was green carpet tiles. Luxury! We started meetings for staff, discussed how to improve, and began working together as a friendly group with an important job to do.

Somerset County Council gave us a new minibus, we found a couple of newish VW LT46 ones, got rid of the rusty buckets and brought, respectability and cleanliness to each journey. We had a community transport officer who was great at helping us to sort out the legal side and logistics. The registered passengers increased, we set up shopping buses to take them from isolated rurality into the local town, and now one village regularly writes poems to thank us.

About this time, I studied at home for my Certificate of Professional Competence in National Passenger Operations and eventually passed. This gave us a much tighter legal framework from which to operate though not mandatory, and an understanding of the legal obligations of other operators.

I worked incessantly on raising funds to get a better compound and building which would save money in the long run and provide a better service. We used to search endlessly around for a bit of land, did a presentation to the local council in a bid for help, raised over £120,000, and finally, after 5 years, persuaded the council to let us rent land on the industrial estate in the town.

So, now we have 2 toilets that are not green in any way and built a panelized timber office which is energy efficient with a compound that lets us keep the buses pristine.  Our registered passengers have risen from 400 in 2005 to nearly 3000 in 2017, we have 9 shopping routes, contracts for school bus and care work, a dial a ride service throughout the area, a car scheme to hospital and elsewhere, and a lot of happy independent local people.

Somerset County Council supports Somerset Community Transport with a concessionary fare which otherwise, most folk here wouldn’t have a chance of using on the lack of public buses, and we rarely get a complaint.

When the community bus stopped running for my 80 year old mother in Staffordshire, she thought her life would end, and it did.

It’s not going to happen here! As one of our passengers said: ‘Life goes on and we are still part of it’.

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