SCC’s cabinet has forced through a new Community Transport model for Suffolk– despite huge reservations from opposition parties and after many of these reservations were confirmed by the county’s cross-party scrutiny committee last month.
Community transport is the term for services like ‘Dial a Ride ‘ that provide transport on demand to those people no longer served by scheduled buses or trains.
And there are a lot of these isolated folk in Suffolk. The Conservative administration has increasingly replaced scheduled bus services in rural areas with community transport operating under various brands serving specific communities and specific user-groups. Their vehicles have been provided by the county and the services largely specified by county officers, but delivery of demand responsive services has remained patchy, disparate and problematic. Often people have had little idea of availability and there have been large areas of unmet need – particularly regarding young person’s travel , regular travel to employment, weekend and evening travel, and same day travel.
The new proposal sees seven contracts (one per district council) to ensure holistic district branding – so people could identify who to phone to book a journey. It would also allow for greater flexibility of provision . (However, people often travel from one district to another to visit the hospital or to shop in a major town).
The SCC-owned vehicles will be sold to the providers, a move that supposedly will allow a wider range of customers to be served. The voiced rationale is, when the county owns vehicles, providers are not allowed to use them to provide profitable services if they compete with commercial services., as that would involve the state subsidising one service to compete against another. It will also, obviously save the county a lot of money!
Suffolk County County – still in thrall to the ideology of impossible competition which has failed rural bus transport so comprehensively over the past thirty years – declares that this will allow ‘competition’ for eg some forms of home-to-school transport that will use the assets more intensively. (Why? Why now? Home-to school transport services have become steadily more expensive, and council-dependent ever since bus deregulation made competition mandatory outside London, thirty years ago. I would suggest this might just be because competition was not the answer!).
The proposal was ‘called in’ by the Labour group for several separate reasons. The call-in was supported by the LibDems , who thought thought the most significant objections to the scheme were financial.
For a start, the intention was that the county no longer provide free vehicles – saving it some £570k (which these largely voluntary bodies would have to find) – but also SCC would HALVE the community subsidy from £1.4m to £700k over the next four years. This enormous cut was supposed to be supported by the voluntary bodies’ increased revenue from the new ‘freedom’ to provide services ! (You may notice the same tired old rhetoric).
In fact, the scrutiny committee believed it was more likely that , although the providers would survive using their new freedoms and their vehicles to provide the county with some alternative sources of transport (for instance home to school services) others would definitely suffer. Many services to people without other transport options would be unlikely to be supported by the halving of the county contribution – and would therefore be cut.
And as the new contract is deliberately non-specific, the County could claim any such losses are matters outside its control. Talk about jesting Pilate.
Scrutiny therefore referred the decision back to cabinet. And, in a very brief process which allowed no comment from other councillors Suffolk’s Conservative Cabinet dismissed the reasoning of the cross-party scrutiny committee and decided there would be no change to this worrying decision.
They looked at scrutiny and thought, “Nobody tells us what to do!” So much for democracy! So much for ‘holding to account.’