Let’s be honest with each other

While we applaud the formation of Mobility Matters – full story in next week’s issue – to offer help to community transport organisations left high and dry by the DfT’s ‘new’ guidance, it is ridiculous to simultaneously pretend that it’s all to do with an ongoing Public Inquiry, that it will never happen, and that nobody could see this coming.

The steering partner in Mobility Matters, the TAS Partnership, must be aware of the lengthy process of EC infraction proceedings instigated by Martin Allen, and that the outcome is imminent. The notion that the DfT has not borne this in mind, in parallel with the Public Inquiry, is naïve, and the new guidance gives a hint to what it may contain; the end of the blurred line between Section 19 and O Licences.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that the DfT’s Stephen Fidler meant what he wrote, and that the consultation promised soon will do little more than offer discussion of the guidance. For no matter what went before, the DfT is simply defining the law, and the legislators’ intention when the UK got this derogation from the EC. CTOs may see it as a change of heart, but for others, it’s a hardening of resolve.

As for the idea that this bodyswerve (admittedly it is that) by DfT is unexpected, that is insulting to anyone who has followed this saga from the start. Not only have BCA, CPT and others waved a warning flag, but within the CT ‘movement’ itself, for many years, operators such as Hackney Community Transport have foreseen this issue and obtained O Licences.

Whether CTOs want to dress these O Licensed operations up as ‘not for profit’ is neither here nor there; they won’t be the first unprofitable bus operator, nor the last. That said, how can the law condone a situation in which contracts tendered must, by law, include an element of profit for the operator, yet they sit within an organisation whose intent is NOT to make a profit? This is an oxymoron. It may even be contrary to the Competition Act.

We can trace the lineage of the movement of CTOs into tendered contracts, vehicle hire and other commercial areas back to two major issues; the huge cuts to local authority support from central government, passed on to CTOs who then needed to make up the shortfall; and the zeal of local authorities to, as they see it, ‘curb’ high tendering bids by awarding contracts to the lowest bid – often a CTO. In this sense, some blame for the situation does accrue to government. The blame does not, in any way, lie with commercial operators frustrated by a loss of that business to operators with licences which are easier and cheaper to obtain, using drivers who require less training, vehicles which may have been paid for in part from public funds, and who declare from the outset they will barely break even.

The issue was, and still is, the level of professional competence required to run paid-for bus services and hired vehicles, and the ability of the drivers who drive them. If the current situation is allowed to continue, we are allowing our most vulnerable people to travel with carriers of less onerous licensing and drivers with less training. On paper, it appears we are treating them as second-class citizens. I say that acknowledging the impressive level of care CT drivers provide.

It would be appalling if there is an impasse and, as a result, thousands of vulnerable people lose their mobility and we waste the resource of drivers whose motivation is to help others. That is not inevitable. Public transport must, as a whole, knit together transport services which have, for too long, been unpicked, whether by the absurdity of local government budgets for school transport and subsidised bus services being run separately, or any other reason.

It is time for a healing process, which we hope will be aided by the DfT S19 consultation. It’s certainly not the time to babble in half-truths just to gain attention.

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