Role of the bus in tackling isolation

Role of the bus in tackling isolation Role of the bus in tackling isolation
Policy makers in all government departments, not just the Department for Transport, must recognise the pivotal role of public transport in providing access to education, healthcare and employment in isolated communities. Failure to do so will reduce the ability of people in these areas to get access to education, employment and health services.

That’s one of the conclusions of the House of Commons transport select committee in its study of passenger transport in isolated communities.

The committee also lends support to quality contracts, with its chairwoman, Louise Ellman, saying in relation to cuts in support for bus services: “The bus industry must work with local authorities to deliver essential local services through the development of quality contracts similar to arrangements that operate in London.”

And the committee’s report supports this: “We welcome the initiative shown by Nexus in introducing its draft quality contract in Tyne and Wear. Given that no quality contract has yet been agreed using the powers in the Local Transport Act 2008, this will be an important test case in determining whether quality contracts are a viable means by which to deliver bus services.”

And, just to be sure you get the message, it adds: “Quality contracts could be used to ensure the provision of bus services to isolated communities. Such services could be specified as part of the package that operators bid for, which would allow cross-subsidisation by more profitable routes and which will reduce or eliminate the need for tendered services.”

Reduce, yes. Eliminate? Methinks not. Do I detect the influence of the Passenger Transport Executive Group here? PTEG was among the many organisations which submitted evidence to the committee. Disappointingly, CPT was not.

However, recognising there are alternatives to quality contracts, the committee also observes: “Partnerships between local authorities and bus operators may be the most realistic means of delivering bus service improvements to isolated communities given current levels of public spending.

“Where possible, such partnerships should include multiple operators and competition should take place within a framework that benefits the public. That will require local authorities and the bus industry to show leadership in developing partnerships, the best of which are based on shared interests and long-term relationships.”

Think “isolated communities” and the chances are you think of deep rural areas, but the committee claims that is not always the case. Ellman points out: “Policy makers sometimes equate ‘isolated’ with ‘rural’ or island communities, but we found that some urban and suburban areas have inadequate passenger transport. The DfT should draft a definition of ‘isolated communities’ for use across central and local government to target scarce resources in ways that reach all types of isolated community.”

The committee challenges the DfT’s assertion that community transport schemes run by volunteers can compensate for reduced bus services in isolated communities. Ellman notes: “We recognise their value but many community transport schemes are tiny and only serve particular groups in the community. It is unrealistic to expect volunteers to replace local bus services.”

But the committee does nevertheless accept that community transport has a role to play, and says that the DfT must extend its financial support for community transport to isolated communities in urban areas, not just rural ones.  

That’s a notion I find disconcerting. I can think of urban areas which are poorly-served by public transport because they are populated by two-car families or have poorly-designed road networks. In some such areas local authorities provide demand-responsive services. In all of them there are taxi companies. So do we really need funding for community transport services too?  

As an alternative to community transport the committee advocates an investigation of what it calls “total transport”. This pools existing transport assets to deliver a broader range of services. Says Ellman: “If, for example, hospital transport were combined with local bus services, it might revolutionise services for isolated communities. We want to see the DfT test that concept in practice by co-ordinating large-scale pilot schemes.”

The report expands on this: “We also believe that total transport could hugely benefit isolated communities. However, we do not have clear evidence on the benefits and costs, because no large-scale trials have yet been carried out in this country. It is important that such trials are carried out in the near future, because we heard that decreased local authority budgets may result in core services being reduced to such a level that full-scale trials of total transport will become impossible.”

This was immediately welcomed by PTEG, which had recommended just such an approach in its Total Transport report in 2011, and had included this report in its evidence to the committee.

PTEG support unit director Jonathan Bray expands on this: “With revenue funding for local transport in decline there are major challenges for the provision of transport to isolated communities be they urban, rural or suburban. The committee is right that isolated communities need some form of public transport if wider government goals for health, employment, growth and education are to be met, and that therefore the DfT needs to provide leadership, and draw on funding from those departments.

“The committee is right, too, in saying that the voluntary sector cannot fill all the gaps but that there is potential for more pooling of funding streams and vehicle fleets across sectors – and that a major trial of this ‘total transport’ approach is needed to test how this might work in practice.”

The last word goes to Ellman:  “Old and young, unemployed people, those on low incomes and disabled people who live in isolated communities rely on passenger transport. For example two out of every five job seekers cite lack of transport as a barrier to finding work.

“All these groups are disproportionately affected by inadequate or reduced services. It is vital that all ministers recognise the fundamental importance of passenger transport in providing access to education, healthcare and employment.”