Suffolk gets new Community Transport model – despite reservations

Suffolk will be getting a new Community Transport model – despite reservations from opposition parties – after the  cabinet decision to tender for continuing community transport using a new structure was “called in” this month.

Community transport is the term for services like Dial a Ride that provide “on demand” transport to people no longer served by scheduled buses or trains. Over recent years the Conservative administration have increasingly replaced scheduled bus services in rural areas of Suffolk with community transport, but delivery has remained patchy disparate and problematic.  A variety of these services have operated under various brands serving different communities and specific user-groups although their vehicles have been provided by the county and the services largely specified by county officers. Often people have had little idea of availability and there has been large areas of unmet need – particularly in the area of young person’s travel , regular travel to employment, weekend and evening travel, and same day travel.

Under the new proposal,  seven contracts would be let (one per district council). This would ensure people would easily know who they should phone to book a journey and allow for greater flexibility of provision.  The problem with that is that people often travel from one district to another to visit the hospital or shop in a major town.

The proposal is that  current vehicles will  be sold to the providers, a move that would allow a wider range of customers to be served.  When the county owns vehicles, providers cannot use them to provide services if that would compete with commercial services. That would involve the state subsidising one service to compete against another.

Another advantage will be that they can then select vehicles to meet the need as they see it rather than having to use what the county provides.

The county hopes that this will allow competition for services such as some forms of home-to-school transport that will use the assets more intensively.

So why was this proposal called in by the Labour group?  Well, there were five reasons but we  LibDems thought the most significant was financial.

The intention was that, not only would the county no longer provide free vehicles saving it some some £570k (which largely voluntary bodies would have to find) but also it would reduce the subsidy from £1.4m to £700k over the next four years.  Increased revenue from the new freedom to provide services was supposed to compensate for this significant cut.

Scrutiny believed it more likely that, although the providers would survive, using their new freedoms and their vehicles to provide the county with alternative sources of transport (for instance home to school services) others would suffer.  Many services to people without other transport options would be unlikely to be supported by the new lower county contribution – and will be cut.  And as the new contract is deliberately non-specific, the County could  claim this is a matter outside its control.

We referred the decision back to cabinet but in a very brief process which allowed no comment from other councillors they dismissed the reasoning of the cross party scrutiny committee and decided there would be no change.

So much for democracy!

John Field
Caroline Page

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