‘Has the Government sided with the bus barons?’, ask Co-operative MPs

Ben West

In a debate on Tuesday, Co-operative Party MPs called on the government to give not-for-profit community transport the recognition it deserves, and to do more to safeguard such routes from disastrous regulatory changes being promoted by commercial firms.

As we reported back in January, MPs have warned that government plans could put hundreds of bus routes run by volunteer and community groups at risk.

Yesterday, Transport Minister Jo Johnson was in Parliament to be questioned by MPs on his Department’s spending estimates and priorities for the coming year. Amid a host of questions relating to HS2, the ongoing rail franchising fiasco and airport expansion, Labour & Co-operative MPs took the opportunity to take the Government to task for its neglect of hundreds of vital routes run by community groups across the country, and policy changes seemingly driven by the interests of large commercial operators.

Co-operative Party Chair Gareth Thomas MP began by echoing an earlier warning by one of the Government’s own MPs that the community transport sector faces a ‘devastating impact’ as a result of upcoming changes in regulation. The new rules will see volunteer-run enterprises subjected to the same costly standards as multi-national commercial operators.

Gareth then went on to highlight the Co-operative Party’s long-running People’s Bus campaign, which calls for significant expansion of the not-for-profit bus sector, and for for an extension of existing rights to give local people the right to designate bus routes as ‘community assets’, protecting them from closure.

With hundreds of community routes across the country – many serving marginalised groups or areas where commercial services have been withdrawn, it’s unsurprising that these concerns are shared even on the Government’s own benches.

East Yorkshire Conservative MP Greg Knight said that “community transport is very important, particularly to people in rural areas.”, while Chesham and Amersham MP Dame Cheryl Gillan noted that community transport operators in her own constituency had been in touch with her with concerns about the upcoming changes.

Continuing his speech, Gareth Thomas highlighted the impact that “uncertainty arising from the Government’s announcement” has had on the sector, which he said had already contributed to the closure of Enfield Community Transport, a charity-run operator near to his constituency.

Without a change in policy, he said, Harrow Community Transport which serves his own constituency “is very worried as to whether or not it will be able to survive if more of its drivers are required to undergo expensive and lengthy training of the sort that commercial bus and coach companies have to provide.”

But perhaps even more significantly, it fell to Gareth and other Co-operative MPs to make the wider point at the centre of our Peoples’ Bus Campaign: that public transport isn’t a commodity to be run for profit, but a service vital to the health, independence of thousands of people, including many of the most vulnerable:

“Tens of thousands of people across the UK are reliant on community transport services for some of the most socially necessary journeys that have to be made. Many of the people who use community transport are among the most vulnerable in our communities, so the Government’s announcement that they were seeking to change the regulation under which the sector has been operating was met with shock.”

Labour & Co-operative MP Sir Mark Hendrick added that community transport included,

“door-to-door transport, informal lift-giving by volunteer car drivers, Dial-a-Ride and Dial-a-Bus, particularly for people with disabilities and mobility difficulties, and groups such as the elderly and others who struggle to get out and about. This transport is required, for example, to take them on shopping trips.”

Every day, community transport operators keep hundreds of vital bus routes across the country open, often with the help of volunteers, serving communities and people who would otherwise face isolation. As yesterday’s debate makes clear, MPs of all parties value the contribution these services make to their constituencies, and the sector as a whole enjoys broad support.

So why is the government so intent on sabotaging community transport and bringing so many of these services to their knees?

As so often, the answer seems to be a Government in hock to powerful interests and ideologically committed to private-profit-at-all-costs, as Gareth Thomas revealed:

I understand that just one small group of commercial bus operators, led by one individual, which wants to cherry-pick community transport contracts provided by local authorities and the NHS, and which does not put anything back into the local area, has somehow managed to persuade Ministers that new rules are needed to interpret EU regulations affecting the drivers and licensing of community transport.

If that’s the case, we’re on to them. It’s time for ministers to think again.

This post was originally published on the Co-operative Party website which you can find here.

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