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Via @IWA_Wales

Llyr ap Gareth is Support and Engagement Executive at the Community Transport Association

So often, transport is the lost piece in the puzzle when trying to make things happen.

 

We can organise a wonderful social event to bring people together and tackle social isolation, but if people can’t get there it won’t help.

 

You can have the best health care service, but all laudable aims of providing early preventative services can be lost due to lack of accessible transport.

 

Concessionary passes are a great incentive for older people to lead active lives, but if there is no local public transport, or if the bus stop is up a hill that Nain can’t get to, what’s the point?

 

That’s why community transport operators are essential. They fill the gaps in the transport network, providing a lifeline for our people and communities and allow people to shape and create their own accessible and inclusive transport solutions. It fits within the policy agenda of government, and is a key – if underappreciated – tool to achieve its goals.

 

For these reasons, there was a unanimous vote recently at the National Assembly for Wales  which noted concern at the current Department for Transport (DfT) consultation on section 19 and 22 permits for community transport and the potential impact that proposed changes could have on services in Wales.

 

Following the debate, the Welsh Government provided a strongly worded letter to the DfT outlining its concerns on these changes .

 

So why the concern? Well, following on from a recent ruling on the UK’s compliance with EU transport regulations, the DFT have reinterpreted their regulations and community transport is in grave danger.

 

Since the Transport Act 1985 it has been assumed that community transport organisations were ‘non-commercial’ as they were not-for-profit. This assumption has now been completely reversed and permit holders are now assumed to be commercial entities unless they fall within certain tight exemptions. The burden is placed upon the organisation to prove otherwise. This is a fundamental and potentially fatal change for many operators and for the kind of services they provide.

 

In part, this is due to the DfT tying itself up in knots in trying to define the Community Transport sector. In opposition to the UK Government’s new interpretation, the Community Transport Association would argue that there is no reason that EU regulation cannot be interpreted as allowing room for not-for-profits to operate with appropriate level of regulation, not commercial regulation.

 

The EU regulation in question is:

Article 1(4)(b) enacts a derogation to the Regulations for:

“Undertakings engaged in road passenger transport services exclusively for non-commercial purposes or which have a main occupation other than that of road passenger transport operator.�

 

The Community Transport Association acknowledges that the UK government cannot change EU regulations. However, it does have the discretion to decide what ‘non-commercial’ means and to apply this to the organisational purpose rather than to individual services.

 

The DfT’s guidance ignores the statutory language of “purposes�. Instead, the Department has focused on the service delivery mechanism utilised by the organisation, viewing journeys as commensurate with commercial bus operations.

 

We believe that the DfT should focus on organisational purpose rather than the means by which that service is delivered. Consequently, the starting point for a proper statutory interpretation requires DfT to define and examine the meaning of “purposeâ€� in the context of passenger transport.  

 

In other words, we should be asking what is the organisation for – not just what it does.

 

Community transport operators are overwhelmingly a ‘bottom-up’, local response to identified local need, working to achieve social needs. By any rational yardstick they are not-for-profit charitable groups created to provide for social good – from dealing with social isolation, to health appointments, access to amenities (as noted, the list goes on, and on).

 

In other words, if a not-for-profit created to promote social ends looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck – it should be treated as…a duck.

 

However, in trying to spatchcock Community Transport into commercial regulatory framework, the UK Government seems intent on treating this duck as if it’s a wholly different species altogether. Just because a duck swims, doesn’t make it right to designate it a fish!

 

To stretch my metaphor further, with everything interpreted backwards one is tempted to think of Rhodri Morgan’s famous image of a ‘one legged duck swimming in a circle’.

 

Certainly, many community transport operators are confused about which way to turn. The muddle is already having an impact. Enforcement agencies are playing it safe on their own terms, by interpreting the regulations in the strictest possible sense. This is despite the fact that the consultation report has not been published, and despite DfT assurances that the transition period for costly changes would mean ‘proportionate’ regulation of the sector.

 

Already, we are aware of permit applications being refused, and of fines being served for operators whom we argue are conducting their business perfectly legally and ethically, and following current UK Government guidance.

 

Hundreds of thousands of people play sport, attend a day-care centre, go to school, go to hospital, are part of a scout group, access respite care, attend counselling, take a trip to a new place.  And for many, these activities are facilitated by not-for-profit or third sector organisations.

CTA members deliver services for local branches such as those of Mencap, Age UK, Mind, Leonard Cheshire, Scope, YMCA as well as the Scouts, Cadets, Girl Guiding, CVS’, churches, schools, hospitals, GP surgeries, sports teams, housing associations, job centres, support groups and countless others. Together they deliver services for 10 million individuals, and 700,000 other charitable organisations on an annual basis.

 

Without the unique service provided by community transport, many community and voluntary groups will have no access to transport services at all.   

 

In the third sector, we have been encouraged to move toward more professional and more business-like practice. In contrast, the current proposals include legislating that not-for-profits need to work at a loss of at least 10% to be exempt from the regulations (in the consultation document, here, page 13). This is wholly unsustainable and shows an alarming lack of understanding of (as well as a bad precedent for) the current role of the third sector in enabling financially sustainable and responsive services.

 

However, the most immediate issue is the impact on real people who use the services, and who depend upon them to access things most of us take for granted. So I will end with the following quotes which are only a tiny sample from our members’ passengers for whom the word ‘lifeline’ is a direct explanation for community transport rather than a hackneyed term. These are people who could be catastrophically affected by the dry-as-dust technical changes outlined by the Department for Transport:

“It’s absolutely vital to me. It completes my security in all sorts of waysâ€�   

 

“I couldn’t live without it – I can’t get out without it.  It’s wonderful. It’s part of my life.â€�

 

“I can’t drive at the moment, and my neighbour can’t drive so it’s a lifeline.  It’s 10 miles to get a pint of milk. You can’t get anything in this village.â€�

 

“[Losing] it would probably mean I would seldom leave the houseâ€�    

 

“I would find it very isolating and would possible have to go into a Homeâ€�. 

Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash


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