Community transport 'needs cash and volunteers'
by Claire McGine, Head of Communications

Community transport schemes need an injection of cash and volunteers if they are to meet growing demand, leading rural network ACRE has warned.

Countryside residents rely heavily on volunteer schemes for a wide range of journeys – from taking children to school to helping the elderly and sick get to hospital.

From solo car drivers through to fully-fledged minibus services, there are an estimated 2,000 community transport schemes across England – one third in mostly rural areas, according to the Community Transport Association (CTA) State of the Sector Report 2014.

But ACRE, the national voice for England’s rural community councils, says community transport is under increasing pressure as demand rises.

A growing elderly population, cuts to rural bus services, reduced NHS patient transport, difficulties recruiting volunteers and a ‘postcode lottery’ approach to bus pass funding are all adding to the strain, says the charity.

It is calling on the next Government to urgently review community transport issues and invest to help schemes stay on the road. ACRE’s Head of Rural Insight Nick Chase said: “Community transport schemes are a lifeline for people living in isolated, rural areas, especially for vulnerable groups such as the elderly and disabled. However, it is clear they are facing a number of challenges that are making it difficult to deliver their vital services.

“There is a decreasing pool of people who feel able to take on a volunteer driver role. Worries over liability and the cost of training is putting people off. People who passed their driving test after 1997 aren’t able to drive the larger, more cost-effective minibuses unless they take an additional test which costs well over £1,000. This is becoming a real issue as older volunteers begin to retire from driving.

“But as the volunteer pool is shrinking, demand is growing. Changes to the criteria for Non-Emergency Patient Transport provided by the NHS mean more and more rural people are using community transport for trips to hospital appointments.

“As the elderly population grows and local bus services are further cut by local authorities, this demand will only increase. More than 35% of pensioner households in rural areas have no access to a car and fewer than half of rural households have access to a regular bus service, compared with 95% of urban households.

“On top of this, some councils choose not to reimburse community transport schemes for carrying passengers who use their concessionary bus passes.

“This situation calls for some joined-up thinking between Government departments to ensure a level playing field for community transport schemes across England.”

ACRE’s evidence from its grassroots intelligence supports the main recommendations of the CTA’s State of the Sector report.

ACRE’s 2015 manifesto is built on its understanding of the needs of rural communities and is calling for:

  • Investment in recruiting and training volunteers, especially younger drivers, for community transport schemes.

  • An urgent review of the criteria for Non-Emergency Patient Transport, to address the discrimination faced by rural residents.

  • A review of concessionary bus travel in rural areas, which have a high number of elderly and disabled bus pass holders.

ACRE acknowledged that the Department for Transport last year made £25 million available to provide hundreds of new minibuses to community transport operators in rural and isolated areas. However, it said the issues of driver training and funding needed to be addressed so that schemes could make the most of the opportunity.

Ends

Notes to editors:

  • On average, rural villagers travel 10,000 miles per year compared with 6,200 for urban dwellers.

  • In the next 20 years, the percentage of people over 85 will double.

  • Only 55% of rural households, compared with 97% or urban households, are within 8km of a hospital.