While the announcement of the derogation until March 2022 for PSVAR application to school services is welcome, it is merely delaying an empty gesture to inclusivity. The Minister, Baroness Vere, is very sadly mistaken if she believes that adding the burden of £30,000 in cost to coaches will guarantee inclusivity.
In her letter (https://www.busandcoachbuyer.com/further-psvar-derogations-announced/), she paints a picture of coach operators cynically side-stepping their obligations like tax dodgers. This is a gross misrepresentation.
The reluctance to fit wheelchair lifts is not borne of mean-spiritedness. It arises because operators have a practical understanding of the services they provide; not only that deploying side-mounted wheelchair lifts is impossible at a great many stops; that this stigmatises wheelchair users and exposes children already aboard to the elements; that it costs a great deal of time and additional risk; but also that they do not believe that the disabled children and their parents have been consulted. It is my personal belief that many, if not most, shown the reality of a side-mounted wheelchair lift in action would rather travel by taxi or minibus.
Baroness Vere also suggests that the coach industry has understood this plan for 21 years. This is untrue. In the first place, the idea that PSVAR would apply to home-to-school services where fares are paid was contained in letters sent to local authorities two decades ago, and never communicated to the coach industry directly. Secondly, the reason so many H2S services are now in scope is that many more carry children who have to pay for H2S because they are over 16; or that in many situations it is unsafe for children to walk or cycle to school – not all roads have lighting and footpaths.
At this point, it is extremely important to say that I have yet to meet a coach operator who does not support inclusivity for disabled people with all their heart; most carry passengers with some disability as part of their daily routine. The industry agrees that disabled people should have the same access to transport as everybody else. But there’s a gap between ideology and reality.
In the first place, H2S contracts themselves are not inclusive. The system already discriminates, the accessible transport often tendered separately. If inclusive contracts were mandated, with the wheelchair-using students included with the rest, Baroness Vere might see a practical transition to her ambition. Where an accessible coach is impractical, separate, accessible, transport would still be unavoidable. But where it is possible to load wheelchairs on a coach, the operator with a PSVAR coach would have the significant bidding advantage of needing only one vehicle and driver.
The fact remains that the biggest barrier to inclusivity is the vehicles we have. Arguably, the closest coach manufacturers have come to a practical concept for a wheelchair lift is the ‘magic floor’ devised by Caetano’s Richard Hunter and PLS for National Express vehicles. And even that is far from perfect. We need better technical solutions for wheelchair-accessible coaches.
Until that solution is designed, there is one other alternative; that operators and schools need to get used to the idea of school buses being buses, run for just two hours a day, at whatever cost to the contract price.