‘Stop cuts to our vital community transport’

Go START. ENGANL00120120504172252
Go START. ENGANL00120120504172252
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Cuts to community transport could spell the end for many voluntary groups and charities including one of the largest in the Sudbury area.

That was the warning from a community transport chairman this week, in response to proposals from Suffolk County Council for community transport funding to be cut by 10 per cent a year for the next five years.

The council currently spends £1.4million on subsidising community transport services across the county and is looking to halve this.

There are also plans for just one tender to be given in each district, the successful bidder taking on all community transport in that area.

Registered charity Go START currently has five vehicles, working with charities and providing transport for elderly and disabled people in the area.

However, chairman of trustees John Phillips warned Go START may be forced to withdraw its services if the changes go ahead.

“They will give an amount of money to one operator in each district. That person’s going to be dealing with all the other community transport operators. I can’t see for the life of me how that’s going to work.

“The last time they did this sort of thing it fell flat and got withdrawn.”

A spokesman for Suffolk County Council said: “There is no need for a single organisation to cover the whole area and the council has always made clear that it may mean several organisations working in partnership with each other to meet a common goal.”

For Mr Phillips the cuts and the changes are too much.

“I’m not even putting in a tender, I’ve no idea what will happen with Go Start. We get £18,000 a year to run all the services we operate. We won’t be here basically.

“There will be an awful lot of people that will have no transport. A lot of disabled kids, elderly people, schools and nurseries will have no transport. All these organisations will be damaged.”

In a report on the proposals Suffolk County Council’s cabinet said successful groups could replace lost funds by taking on more commercial work, such as school and hospital runs.

Both Mr Phillips and John Stock, chairman of Hadleigh Community Transport, said this was something they were already heavily involved in.

“We already do work with the schools and voluntary groups,” said Mr Phillips.

“It’s nothing new. We have been doing it since we first started. We’ve got five vehicles on the road. Last month we did 2,700 miles, tell me when our buses are standing empty? This is pure political dogma.”

Mr Phillips also rejected the idea that the services could become more efficient.

“We are all volunteers. There are no paid staff on the road. We have one paid member of staff on the phones.

“You don’t get rid of fat by getting rid of volunteers.”

He added: “We are in a strong position as we own our own vehicles. Many of the groups don’t, but county want them to buy their vehicles. Where will they find the money to do this?

“I can see nothing positive in what they are doing whatsoever.”

In response, the council said: “We do believe that in many cases better use could be made of the vehicles that are currently provided, there are often restrictions on their use depending on the type of service and the new contract will remove these.

“We fully recognise the contribution made by volunteers and are trying to remove the barriers that prevent them from giving a better service to their local communities.

“Some excellent local organisations already run their own vehicles with little financial help and no restrictions on their use. They have shown us that this can be done and we are hoping to give other organisations the same freedom.”

Mr Stock questioned why “the most important group”, passengers, had not been consulted.

The council spokesman said that several of the organisations were consulting with passengers themselves.

He added that the tender was designed to allow the organisations to use their experience to design the detail of the services provided.

The proposals for community transport have been called in to the scrutiny committee by Labour councillors and on Tuesday Suffolk County Council cabinet members will be asked to reconsider the plans.

In the meeting agenda it asks: “Will the new model for rural transport meet the requirements to provide customers with a better service, at a lower cost to the council, whilst increasing the supply of home to school transport providers in Suffolk?”

Jane Basham, vice chairman of South Suffolk Labour Party, is campaigning against the cuts. She said: “Whatever the council spin on ‘efficiency’, there is no fat in community transport operators.

“I’ve met those that give up their free time to drive, engage with vulnerable older people - who clean and maintain vehicles and operate manage and govern for free.

“Shame on those who are pushing this through and on our local elected representatives for sitting on their hands watching it happen.”