Regulatory changes being introduced by the government will threaten the viability of community bus services across the country, the Transport Select Committee has warned.
Community transport operators are responsible for hundreds of bus services, often serving areas abandoned by for-profit bus operators and providing a lifeline to vulnerable groups such as the elderly, who might otherwise be stuck at home.
Last August, the Co-op Party warned the proposed changes could see “transport’s unsung heroes … taken off the road by red tape”. The new rules mean transport operators registered as charities or not-for-profit organisations will be subject to the same costly permit restrictions as large-scale commercial operators such as Arriva and FirstGroup.
Delivering its report last month, the Transport Committee said the Department of Transport had failed to anticipate how these changes would affect smaller-scale community services. It called on the department to “enhance its expertise, understanding and oversight of community transport, and be able to demonstrate how it has done so.”
In its response to the committee report, the Co-op Party said: “Though the government insists that small, community-based permit holders won’t be greatly impacted, many are already being taken off the road.
“A survey conducted by campaign group Mobility Matters – a coalition of transport operators affected by the changes – found that 20% of of their members anticipate job losses and redundancies as a direct result of these regulatory changes, while 40% of operators expect these changes will force them to withdraw all services and shut up shop altogether.”
It added: “What the Transport Select Committee seems to understand, that the government doesn’t, is that community transport is about much more than getting from A to B.
“Public transport – and buses in particular – bring a host of wider social benefits, from supporting the mental and physical health of people who would otherwise struggle to live independently, through to keeping town centres and local amenities like shops and post offices viable.”
While bus services across England have been largely unregulated and run by a diminishing number of large operators since the 1980s, the exception is London, where Transport for London retains control over routes, timetables and fares, using these powers to maximise wider social benefit rather than narrow financial returns.
Transport for London’s managing director of surface transport, Leon Daniels, said: “Some of my dial-a-ride passengers only see other human beings outside their homes when they go on their dial-a-ride trip,” providing opportunities for social interaction that improve physical and mental health, and creating health and social care savings that far outweigh the costs of running the services.
The committee’s report concluded by calling on ministers to think again, this time properly considering “suitable mitigations to protect the wider social benefit of the UK’s unique community transport approach”.
Under rules set out in the 2012 Social Value Act, such an assessment must review the duties of commissioners and consider how the government can support community transport operators during the transition period.
The Co-op Party added: “This report is a welcome endorsement of our belief that buses should be run for people, not profit – championed in recent years via our People’s Bus Campaign.
“As we await the government’s response, we can only hope it’s a reminder to them, too.”