Monday, 9 February 2015

Community transport: put the third sector first!

Last week Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Michael Dugher MP, made an important announcement for community transport charities. He said a future Labour government would look to not-for-profit transport operators to help communities that are poorly served by the unregulated bus markets outside London. This is a good sign for the third sector.

Community transport is an important part of the debate on devolution and local authority powers. Why shouldn’t local authorities be able to shape their local bus services in the public interest? I’m pleased to hear a front bench politician addressing this question.

Politicians often say that a broken market can be repaired by diversifying the provision of services. But they don’t so often go on to say that the third sector should be a central provider of public services. This is the key contention in ACEVO's public service reform agenda.

Since bus deregulation in 1986 the majority of bus services outside London have been run by commercial operators. If services aren’t profitable enough, they can withdraw them. Local authorities have few powers to create a better deal for their residents, other than to subsidise routes they deem to be socially necessary. So usually they will pay commercial operators to run services they had previously withdrawn. Often, it’s the most vulnerable and isolated people and communities who suffer the loss of public transport. Their chances of accessing vital public services and employment are severely curtailed.

Who is lined up to respond to this challenge? The community transport sector has always been there, working with local authorities to address gaps in services and helping people who cannot access conventional bus services.

Community transport operators provide a bridge between the transport industry and the charity sector. They have a lot in common with other charities but are often quite distinct from the rest of the transport industry, not least because of the number of women in positions of leadership. Two of these are members of ACEVO. At our annual dinner last year, Jo Beaumont (who leads a social enterprise that works across the North of England and the Midlands) was chosen to be an ACEVO fellow. Anna Whitty is CEO of the ECT Charity and has recently joined ACEVO; Anna was instrumental in leading a partnership providing accessible shuttle services for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which did wonders to raise the profile of the community transport sector.

Bill Freeman, ACEVO member and a regular at our North West CEO’s forum, is in his second year as Chief Executive of the Community Transport Association, the national body which leads and supports community transport across the UK.

Bill has argued since day one that things could be different. He says it makes no sense for policy-makers only to turn to the community transport sector once everyone else has had a go, spent the money and proved they can’t make it work. He argues that the not-for-profit model should be on the table from the start when thinking about how to meet transport needs within our communities. It is a more reliable and resilient way of addressing unmet needs.

So far in this election campaign there’s been too little debate across the board about the third sector. Community transport is a great example of the contribution we can make to public services in future. At ACEVO we’re currently reaching out to bring more Community Transport operators in to our movement, to strengthen our voice for change in the way our public services work. And let’s hope we can keep up the momentum for the third sector to be showcased in other debates in the weeks left before the polls!

Some information about Community Transport in the UK:

What is community transport?
  • Community transport is about providing flexible, accessible and responsive solutions to unmet local transport needs, and often represents the only means of transport for certain user groups.
  • Using everything from mopeds to minibuses, typical services include voluntary car schemes, community bus services, school transport, hospital transport, dial-a-ride, wheels to work and group hire services.
  • Community transport benefits those who are otherwise isolated or excluded, enabling them to live independently, participate in their communities and access education, employment, health and other services.
  • Community transport works to a particular set of regulations designed to enable not-for-profit services run for a social purpose to be able to operate within a safe and legal framework.

Regulation of CT services
  • Community transport operators are required to comply with both charity law and transport law. Charity law ensures that the organisation’s activities are focused solely on providing public benefit. Within transport law there are special provisions for services that are run on a non-for-profit basis.
  • The key legislation is contained within the 1985 Transport Act and its subsequent amendments.  This was the Act which denationalised the bus industry; it recognised that transport provision in some places was unlikely to be commercially viable and so provision was made to make it feasible for community groups to provide transport.
  • The regulatory regime strikes a balance between placing sufficient rules on community transport services to ensure that they are safe and legal but not making them so stringent that they deter community organisations and volunteers from getting involved in operating a transport service.  Any organisation which provides transport using a minibus should have a permit, whether or not they charge a fare to their passengers.
  • One type of permit (section 19) support services that take people or groups from door to door, as a taxi or coach might. The second type of permit (section 22) enables them to run scheduled services along fixed routes, like conventional bus services but with smaller vehicles.

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