South Suffolk Residents sign up to Labour Community Transport Campaign
Last July Suffolk’s Tory Cabinet proposed a new commercial tender to replace all community transport buses. There will be seven five-year contracts, one for each District Council area. Those running the new contracts are likely to be forced to cut the level of service as the Council’s funding shrinks from £1.4million to £0.7million, leaving parts of Suffolk with a reduced or no bus service.
Suffolk Labour Cllr Sandra Gage has argued that the council is in breach of the Equality Act 2010, having failed to seek the views of vulnerable and disabled users of Community Transport, and that the Council’s own Equality Impact Assessment conclusion is wrong to say there will be no planned reduction in the level of service and no impact on any residents.
The contracts clearly state that the Council’s daily fare recharge rates to the operator will decline from £140 per day to £90 per day over the five years. In real terms this cut will be even greater than it looks, and the bus operator will be supposed to find other funding to meet the shortfall - or cut the service.
National Government funding to local councils for public transport has been cut by 28% since 2010. In the Eastern Region cuts in 2015/16 alone amounted to 10.3%. This is against a growing national understanding of the significant social, economic and financial benefit of Community Transport. In a report published this week by ECT Charity, on behalf of London Strategic Community Transport Forum’s Social Value Working Group, it has been calculated that in the UK between 2.1 and 4.2 million aged people suffer loneliness and isolation. Community Transport has been proven to reduce the effects of loneliness, isolation, and improve health and wellbeing. The report concludes this could save the UK between £1.3 and £2.9bn per year, improving the quality of life for thousands within our communities.
However, irrespective of the clear benefits to a rural Suffolk, the Tory County Council has cut discretionary bus services by over £4million since 2010, and plans a further £3.5million cuts over the next two years. The 50% cut in Community Transport funds is part of this plan and the County will also sell off its mini bus fleet so that those Community Transport Operators still trying to run services will have to hire or purchase their own vehicles.
The decision to fundamentally change the community buses from a grant aided service to a commercial tendered contract was made by the Tory Cabinet without consulting existing passengers, including disability groups, or listening to the concerns raised by transport providers. The County Labour Group has campaigned against this since the Summer, and won all-Party support to review the Tories’ decision. The Tories have continued, ignoring Labour Councillors, Disabled Groups and the Community Transport Providers requests to stop. Tenders closed end of December, and the contracts are due to be awarded in June.
Linda Hoggarth, Chair of the Disability Forum for Suffolk says “Disability organisations in Suffolk are hugely worried about the incoming changes to Community Transport who rely on door to door services to access their health appointments, and go about their personal business. Suffolk County Council have failed to understand the full impact of their changes on disabled and elderly people and those isolated in rural areas which threaten their health and wellbeing. It is important for our voices to be heard.”
Cllr Sandra Gage, said “There has been no real consultation. Certainly none with the public, but even the stakeholder events we were told were to seek views were really just to tell us what was to come.” She added “A number of Community Transport Operators have complained to the County Council before and during the tender process and have shared their concerns with me. They have been ignored. It remains to be seen how any bus operator can make these contracts work.”
The ‘Save Our Community Transport’ petition is at almost 4,000 signatures on line and in excess of 1,000 so far, signed by angry community transport supporters across Suffolk. Sandra commented “Across Suffolk, the support for the Labour petition has been overwhelming. One supporter commented ‘my nan does not drive, and is unable to leave the village due to the lack of public transport..…. it is depriving the elderly of their freedom’. This goes to the heart of what is wrong with what the County Council is doing”.