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November 10, 2010

Local transport services may win new role

Community transport projects tend to operate in areas where the public and private sectors have been unable to run a financially viable service and so invariably they have a constant focus on providing value for money. The fact that these projects are also usually owned and managed locally means that all sorts of additional benefits accrue. Ironically, it looks like the public spending squeeze may actually work in the community transport sector’s favour

Damien Henderson, The Herald

COMMUNITY groups are to be given a greater role in running their own bus services as part of a plan to save millions of pounds currently paid to private firms to run “lifeline” routes.

Council-run body Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) says securing greater involvement from the public will be vital as part of an efficiency drive designed to protect vulnerable and isolated communities from cuts in public transport.

A number of charities and voluntary groups in the west of Scotland have already been given funding to provide transport to hospital or other public services that would otherwise not be provided by private bus companies.

They include the British Red Cross Society, which is working with SPT to deliver door-to-door bus services for elderly and infirm residents on Arran, and Coalfield Community Transport, which provides accessible and affordable transport for former mining villages in East Ayrshire, as well as groups in Glasgow and East Dunbartonshire.

As part of its plan, SPT has purchased 57 buses which, unlike council fleets, can be reconfigured to transport disabled passengers to and from hospital, take children on the school run and deliver bus services at off-peak periods when commercial operators are unable to make money.

“We currently pay a lot of money to bus companies to provide socially necessary services and there has to be a way of cutting that expenditure in order to protect those services”  Jonathan Findlay, SPT chairman

It is hoped the approach will mean councils are less reliant on private operators to deliver subsidised services and prevent the waste of having school buses – and drivers – sitting idle for most of the day between school runs.

Arrangements will differ from group to group, but typically SPT will provide the bus and the individual organisation will be required to provide its own driver and cover any subsequent running costs of the service.

Jonathan Findlay, chairman of SPT, said the changes were necessary as he warned that bus users were facing a “perfect storm” as private firms cut routes that struggled to make money and councils were forced to cut subsidies for “socially necessary” services.

SPT currently pays £10.1 million a year – just more than one-quarter of its budget – to subsidise bus companies so they can operate commercially non- viable routes and pay for demand responsive services for communi- ties that would otherwise not have access to public transport.

The 12 councils in the SPT area currently spend £28m a year on school buses but many have been forced to withdraw or reduce the service they offer.

In an interview with The Herald, Mr Findlay said the bill would be far higher if councils were left to provide the services themselves but said there was room for efficiency savings.

“I’m very interested in investigating getting a greater level of involvement of the community, particularly where commercial services have been withdrawn,” he said.

“We currently pay a lot of money to bus companies to provide socially necessary ser-vices and there has to be a way of cutting that expenditure in order to protect those services.”

Speaking nine months after his appointment, following an expenses scandal that saw the resignation of SPT’s chair, vice-chair and chief executive, Mr Findlay said he was presiding over an organisation that was “leaner and more focused on its core objectives”.

That has included halving the number of directors and working through the organisation department by department to implement reforms.