Lilian Greenwood: This could be the last chance to save our vital community transport sector
We must convince the DfT that its new proposals could have dire consequences for not-for-profit transport services – and the communities they serve, argues Lilian Greenwood
Community transport – local, not-for-profit provision of transport for people who might otherwise be isolated – rarely comes under the spotlight. It encompasses a broad range of services, from lift-giving by volunteer car drivers, to dial-a-ride minibus services for disabled and elderly people, to local bus services that would otherwise not exist because they cannot survive on a commercial basis.
Members across the House know how essential these services are to local communities. Some constituents describe them as a lifeline. That’s why I was proud that the Transport Committee’s first report since I became chair focused on these vital, yet often overlooked, services and that on Thursday a debate will consider the government’s inadequate response.
The Transport Act 1985 set out a relatively light touch licensing regime for the provision of community transport – section 19 and 22 permits. At the end of July, in what the department seems to have hoped was a relatively innocuous letter from a senior official to the issuers of these permits, it set out a new approach, contrary to the official guidance that had been applied for decades.
This suggested some providers of community transport would face the more stringent and costly licensing conditions – like commercial operators. The letter argued this change would likely affect only a small proportion of typically larger not-for-profit community providers, who were “essentially acting as bus companies and competing for contract work and/or charging fares to passengers at more than nominal rates”.
For more than a decade, a small group of commercial operators had been complaining of unfair competition from community transport for local authority contracts such as school transport. They claimed this was contrary to an EU Regulation which came into force in the UK in 2011.
Our inquiry found no widespread evidence of unfair competition. But in some areas, some commercial operators, often small-to-medium-sized businesses, appear to have suffered substantial detrimental effects. Whilst we agreed that the government should act to address instances of unfairness, our concern was that it should not use a sledgehammer to crack a nut and that the wider social value of the UK’s unique, not-for-profit, community-based approach should be jealously guarded.
Our report emphasised that community transport operators have acted in good faith, in line with official guidance and with the acquiescence, and indeed encouragement, of local and central government to become more “professional” in outlook and move into local contract work to become more financially self-sufficient. This is not disputed by the government.
The government accepts that, at the time of the July 2017 letter, it did not fully appreciate the potential consequences but evidence to our inquiry suggested that the effects would be felt very broadly across the community transport sector. Campaigners believed that, if the Department for Transport stuck firm to its new approach, 40% of community transport providers would be unable to carry on operating.
We welcomed some clarifications set out by the Department for Transport during our inquiry in November and hoped they would mitigate the more obviously perverse effects. But the subsequent response to our report was disappointing. Its legal advice was that it could not accept most of our recommendations and that practice in the UK must be brought into line with EC 1071/2009.
The department published a consultation in February, with a promise that it would be used as a “fact-finding exercise to improve and enhance our understanding of the sector”, to more fully understand the likely effects of its proposals. Meanwhile the Community Transport Association has published its own analysis. This is deeply concerning: 95% of not-for-profit permit holders expected to be affected, facing additional costs of almost £400m.
The consultation closed on Friday. I have heard concerns from the community sector that the department has not been listening and is sticking implacably to its legal interpretation, deaf to the warnings about the potentially dire effects.
Thursday’s debate may be a last opportunity to impress upon the department the urgent need to engage with these concerns. I urge all Members concerned about the future of the UK’s unique community transport sector, which brings such vital social benefits to some of our most vulnerable constituents, to lend their voice to the debate.