Community Transport – Westminster Hall Debate

On Wednesday 16th December, I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on Community Transport, tabled by my Derbyshire colleague, Maggie Throup MP. As many of you will know, our local Community Transport service, CT4TC, provide an invaluable service to many of my constituents and the proposed cuts from Derbyshire County Council are very worrying.

I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight CT4TC’s hard work to support our community and call on Derbyshire County Council to reconsider their proposed funding cuts. CT4TC provides schemes for care home outings, group outings, lunch clubs, regular day trips and a school service, as well as a dial-a-bus scheme and a community car scheme. If we lost these services, I fear that it would have a disastrous impact as the community transport scheme exists to help people be independent as well as get to medical appointments with their general practitioner or hospital.

Derbyshire County Council’s approach is therefore very short-sighted and narrow minded, as people will still need support and it will make it harder for people who are quite excluded to get to their health appointments and all that will happen is that a larger cost will end up falling on social care – at a time when the social budget is already stretched. If Derbyshire County Council proceed with these ill-judged cuts, I can foresee a situation where people won’t be able to access the medical treatment they need when they need it or the invaluable support it provides to those who would otherwise be isolated in their homes with increased social care required as a result.

I would like to see the County Council pause on this decision and ensure that they consider the implications of reducing funding to these invaluable services. I’d like to see them take longer to consider this and the service they risk losing and see how we can replicate it.

You can read my contributions to the debate here:

Nigel Mills, MP for Amber Valley: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Nuttall. I join other Members in congratulating my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) on securing this important debate, which is timely: community transport services in Derbyshire are under great threat.

I start, as other Members did, by paying tribute to the work of the employees and volunteers in my local community transport provider, which used to be called Amber Valley Community Transport but now has the catchy name of Community Transport for Town and County—or CT4TC for short, which is a little harder to remember. It has initiatives similar to those that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) spoke about, in terms of trying to be more efficient and developing partnerships. It now covers not only Amber Valley but north-east Derbyshire and Chesterfield, and even provides a newish service in Bassetlaw, crossing the county boundary—we are getting into quite radical territory there, by bridging the divide between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

I do not think anyone could doubt the great importance and value of the service that CT4TC provides, or the value for money for the taxpayer. The county council’s contribution to the organisation is about £250,000 a year, but what we actually get is about £1.5 million-worth of community transport, so we get six times as much as we spend. The real risk is that we will lose not only £250,000-worth of valuable services but all the extra value on top of that; we will lose £1.5 million-worth of service. That would be a terrible loss from such a cack-handed and ill-thought-through approach to funding reductions. I am not sure how many services in Derbyshire deliver that kind of return on the money spent.

CT4TC provides a number of services, and not only the ones directly funded by the county council. It provides schemes for care home outings, group outings, lunch clubs, regular day trips and a school service, as well as a dial-a-bus scheme and a community car scheme. If we lost the community car scheme, what impact would that have? The scheme exists to help people get to medical appointments with their general practitioner or at the hospital. Those people will still need to get to their medical appointments, and they will have two ways of doing that: they will either have to pay for a taxi themselves, which I suspect they cannot afford or are not willing to do, or they will have to use ambulance transport, which I think is now provided by the East Midlands Ambulance Service, but was previously done by a private provider. That just moves a cost for the taxpayer from one part of the system to a different part—namely, a service that is already overwhelmed and is not particularly efficient, either. I am not sure we are saving any money there.

At a time when we are meant to be trying to join up health and social care, if we move costs around the system and make it harder for people who are quite excluded to get to their health appointments, all that will happen is that a larger cost will end up falling on social care from people not getting the medical treatment they need when they need it. That scheme is vital, and that funding ought to stay.

We can make the same argument for what would happen if we were to lose the dial-a-bus scheme, which helps people who are otherwise excluded or stuck in their homes to get out, socialise, get their shopping, go to important appointments and pay their bills. If that service ceases to exist, where do we leave those people? We leave them more isolated, more lonely and stuck at home, so they cannot get the shopping they need or reach the other services they need. What happens then? They will need more social care and more visits a day. People who are not yet in the social care system will perhaps need to go into it, which will have a much more significant cost than what we will save from making these budget savings.

We are in danger of being very short-sighted here, by looking at one particular cost and not thinking about all the knock-on effects around the system. I fear that if Derbyshire County Council proceeds as it is doing, and we end up losing all these services, that will create a whole load more costs in its already stretched social services budget. The value that it gets for the £250,000 that it spends is far more than that sum, and it risks spending a whole load more if it loses this service. There must be a better way of achieving these savings that does not involve risking what CT4TC says could happen: we might leave them with no option but a managed wind-down if these savings go ahead as planned.

It is not right for us to stand here and oppose every cut that county councils have to make, when we are making the necessary funding reductions to them; that is not fair. We elect councils, and they should make decisions based on their priorities, but it is right for us to ask, “Have you really thought this through? Is this really fair? Is it a sensible system? Are you giving these organisations a chance to reorganise their funding and find a different way of doing this? Are you going to deliver the services that you are legally obliged to?” We are saying, “Why do it so quickly? Take longer over it; think about what you are losing and see how we can replicate it.”

I am sure there is scope for these organisations to be a bit more efficient and to have some more partnership working and perhaps some further merges, to avoid a repeat of leadership costs, management costs, trustee costs and premises costs. We can perhaps make maintenance costs a bit more efficient and get some more efficient routes by not having services split across boundaries. There is a challenge for these providers to become more efficient, but we cannot say that that is a solution to losing the £1.5 million of services that CT4TC provides across the whole county.

It is worth thinking about the other money being spent on transport services around the county. We have a valuable but quite costly bus pass gold card system. I have never been able to work out exactly why we can put someone on a commercial bus service that makes a profit, on which they can use their gold card to travel for free in Derbyshire, yet when they catch a community transport service, they cannot use that gold card, or they can use it but have to pay some of the fare. Is there not a way of thinking more logically about how we merge those two services? Is it sensible for subsidised, profit-making private bus companies to run routes with not many people on them, while we cannot provide a community transport service that is probably more efficient and takes the most disadvantaged and most excluded people where they really need to go to a planned timetable, so that there is a group to make the service viable?

Is there a way of using the money we are spending on the bus pass and on subsidising those services to get better, more inclusive provision that targets the people who really need it? I am not saying we should not have buses going to housing estates that otherwise have no service, or that we should in any way change the gold card or the national bus pass system, but is there a way of linking those uses with community transport, to get better value and provide the better service that our constituents really need? We will then be able to deliver for people who cannot get out of their house if they do not have such a service. That is what we face losing in Derbyshire.

I will conclude by reading CT4TC’s mission statement:

“No one regardless of age, ability/disability, financial status or domestic location should be prevented from enjoying a full life because of lack of access to private or public transport.”

I do not think any of us could disagree with that as a mission, and I hope we can find a way through this funding issue so that that does not become a reality for some people.