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December 16, 2009

Community transport needs a level playing field

One of the government’s flagship policies is concessionary bus travel. A boon for many thousands of elderly and disabled people – but only if they have ready access to scheduled bus services. Where no such access exists, more often than not community transport projects provide a lifeline. But these vital services are not compensated by the concessionary scheme.  This strange inconsistency needs to be addressed

Community Transport Association Scotland

Since its inception, the Scotland-wide Free Travel Scheme has been a welcome boon for many of Scotland’s older citizens. It has brought people together, given them greater independence and transformed the opportunities available to them.

The 12 organisations behind the A Fare Deal Campaign have supported the scheme since its inception, and we continue to do so. However, the benefits it has brought are not equally available to all of Scotland’s older and disabled people.

At present, many of the most frail and vulnerable people entitled to free travel cannot use their entitlement because they are unable to access conventional bus services. They may be too frail or disabled, blind or partially sighted to get to a bus, or may live in an area where bus services are sparse or non-existent. Instead, they can use Demand Responsive Community Transport Services, such as Dial-A-Ride or Ring-A-Bus, often at a cost to themselves, to travel around. This serves as a disincentive against ‘nonessential’ trips such as social occasions and adds a financial burden to ‘essential’ trips such as hospital appointments.

Many local authority operated demand responsive community transport schemes are delivered free to people who hold the entitlement card, but a significant number levy a fare. We believe that there should be equity across Scotland so that people who hold an entitlement card under the free travel scheme can access their local authority operated transport schemes for free no matter in which of Scotland’s 32 local authorities they live.

Many local community transport schemes are operated by voluntary organisations who have found themselves vulnerable with their current funding running out in March 2009. These voluntary schemes also often have to charge to keep their schemes running. We believe that the community transport schemes should be a part of the free travel scheme.

To address this inequality, we believe that the Scotland-wide Free Travel Scheme should be extended to cover Demand Responsive Community Transport and we need your and your friends’, families’ and neighbours’ support to help make the case to the Scottish Government.

Why Extend the Scheme?
The Scotland-wide Free Travel Scheme recognises the importance of both ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ journeys to the well-being, health, social inclusion and social activities of older and disabled people. Indeed, this forms a large part of the rationale behind the scheme. For example, two of the scheme’s key objectives explicitly state that it is to:

• “Allow older and disabled people (especially those on low incomes) improved access to services, facilities and social networks by ‘free’ scheduled bus services; and so promote social inclusion”
• “To improve health by promoting a more active lifestyle for the elderly and disabled”

As these important objectives apply to all older and disabled people, there can be no justification for excluding those who, for whatever reason, cannot use scheduled bus services.

The Scottish Executive’s “Review of Demand Responsive
Transport (DRT) in Scotland (2006)” highlighted this inequity. In addition, a 2006 Report from the Scottish Parliament Equal Opportunities Committee recommended that “the Scottish Executive make current and future DRT services eligible for concessionary fares in line with the concessionary fares scheme introduced in April 2006”.

In addition to establishing equality for all of Scotland’s older and disabled people, extending the scheme would help towards achieving the Scottish Government’s five Strategic Objectives and other aspects of the National Performance Framework. In particular it would help meet the National Outcomes of:

• “living longer, healthier lives” –
• “tackling the significant inequalities in Scottish society”; and
• “living in well-designed, sustainable places were we are able to access the amenities and services we need”. Community transport enables people who experience social exclusion to sustain and improve their health and gives them better and faster access to health care. Having good, reliable, accessible transport also enables people to live independently for longer, reducing the burden on care in the community and residential care budgets.

How much would this cost?
A survey conducted by the Community Transport Association (CTA) in July 2007 showed that community transport (which does not include all forms of DRT) provided 2.6 million passenger journeys in Scotland the previous year, i.e. 1.3 million return journeys. CTA estimate that these journeys would have been made by around 100,000 passengers. Return fares on community transport services in Scotland average around £4. Given this, the cost of extending the scheme in 2007 would have been £5.2m.

This would be the cost to government if all community transport services, including dial-a-ride, dial-a-bus, and car schemes, were included in the free travel scheme. Even allowing for a degree of variance in future and the additional journeys from people who currently cannot afford to make non-essential trips, the cost of extending the scheme would not therefore be prohibitive to the public purse.

Research carried out by Leonard Cheshire Scotland has shown that 32% of people with disabilities who had a scheduled medical appointment in the last 12 months had missed it due to lack of accessible transport. A missed appointment results in a significant cost to the NHS and a conservative estimate shows that over half a million hospital appointments were missed in Scotland at a cost of £50.7 million. Extending the Free Travel Scheme to include demand responsive community transport could therefore lead to substantial savings to the NHS.

Set against this, as many as 100,000 people who are currently entitled to free bus travel will be able to use their concession to access the services and opportunities they require through demand responsive community transport services. They will benefit socially and financially and there could be significant savings to the public purse.