For many, many years I have reported in these columns on the annual Conference of the Community Transport Association (CTA). Sometimes they have been very good, other times they have been very frustrating with lots of airy fairy idealism leaving one with a feeling of a lack of realism. This year’s Conference fell very much into the former category rather than the latter. This was a conference with some real meat in it and an obvious desire to tackle the problems the sector faces head-on and not skirt around them. Whether this was because this was the first CTA Conference for the organisation’s recently appointed new CEO, Bill Freeman, I do not know but the change was very marked.
One of the thorny issues facing the CTA is the on-going, and at times acrimonious, debate between commercial operators and community transport operators and local authorities over what are considered to be ‘unfair practices’ – community transport operators being awarded bus service contracts when it isn’t entirely clear that they are operating on a level playing field with commercial operators, the use of Section 19 permits for hire and reward services, public money being given as grants to CT operators, usually for vehicle purchase, which then enables them to unfairly bid for public service contracts. In the past the CTA has tended to try and brush this under the carpet, hiding behind the general statement that it issues strict guidelines to its members on what they can and cannot do when bidding for commercial contracts and that if they ignore that advice that is their own fault. In the face of mounting pressure from the commercial sector and the uncovering of evidence of malpractice the CTA has changed its stance and has even withdrawn Section 19 permits from some members who were abusing the system.
All bus operators, be they commercial operations or community transport ones, are facing tough times particularly where they are operating rural services. Grant funding which for years has been the life-blood of CT operations is drying up, down according to some analysts by as much as 50% compared to ten years ago. With the latest targets applied to local authorities by the Government’s relentless pressure on funding for local authorities this situation is only going to get worse. Every day comes news of another Council announcing that it has to reduce its spending by absolutely horrific levels to meet the Government targets. In the county where I live, Cumbria, the County Council has announced it has to reduce its budget by £80m over the next three years having already drastically reduced it over the past three years. With Councils already having made major cuts to their services and particularly their workforces, their scope for making further reductions is very limited. It is inevitable therefore that bus services supported by the Councils are coming under increasing pressure and Councils are having to either find cheaper ways of providing those services or scrap them. Cumbria for example has already announced that it is considering withdrawing all it subsidies for bus services. Such a move will have a devastating effect in a massive sparsely populated area where social exclusion is already a major problem. Such a move will have serious consequences for community transport operators and commercial operators alike.
There is absolutely no doubt that whether they like it or not community transport operators and the commercial side of the business are going to have to work much more closely together in the future and there is an urgent need for trust to be established between both sides. Community Transport, if it wants to survive, has no choice but to become much more sustainably financed and it can only achieve that in the main by becoming more commercial, developing its own income streams and much of that will have to come from operating contracts for other people, principally local authorities, health trusts etc. That has the potential to bring the two sides into conflict but it doesn’t have to. There are many very good examples of CTs and commercial operators working together very successfully with each doing what they are good at. For example CTs are very good at being able to bring people in from outlying areas to commercial bus service hubs. This isn’t taking potential business off commercial operators because commercial operators cannot afford to run such services. It is only because of its lower cost base, usually achieved by the use of volunteer labour, that CTs can. There is nothing wrong in bus services in rural, and even some vulnerable urban areas, being provided by volunteers provided that all the statutory regulations are being followed. If someone wants to give their time free to an organisation, there is nothing wrong in that. It is part of the British character, we have always had strong volunteer ethic. If an organisation decides any profits it makes are going to be ploughed back into improving or expanding its ‘social’ operations rather than being paid to a shareholder, there is nothing wrong in that either, but it must be done openly and legally.