In rural counties like Shropshire, with a dispersed population and vast road network, we all know it is not possible to deliver a public transport system which will reach every resident – so community transport plays a vital role supplementing commercial providers.
For over 30 years, all community transport groups have been able to apply for permits to carry passengers in a bus or minibus without first holding the Public Service Vehicle operator’s licence (PSV licence), if operating on a non-commercial basis.
Last year however a commercial bus operator launched a Judicial Review, based on the view that some community transport groups (who do not require a PSV licence) are competing with commercial providers (who do need one). This is not allowed under EU rules, and so the government has to rethink the way it approaches community transport.
The government launched a consultation to determine how to clarify the law and ensure operators are aware of their obligations under EU law, to continue to provide services. The government absolutely recognises the value of community transport, (indeed it has bought over 400 new minibuses for community transport groups since 2014, including a new bus which I welcomed in Bridgnorth), so I know it is determined to ensure any changes do not damage the sector.
I have long supported the five different community transport providers covering South Shropshire, who have 126 volunteer drivers, driving around 371 hours a week, providing members with over 90,000 journeys per year. Last week I also met Age UK, whose volunteers drive people to their 40 day centres across Shropshire, who are also concerned -but I expect will not be affected.
On Tuesday I co-chaired a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Rural Services, at which we took evidence from community transport providers and Local Authority commissioners and made clear directly to Transport Minister, Jesse Norman MP, how vital it is to ensure community transport in rural areas continues without excessive burdens on volunteers. As a Herefordshire MP, I know Jesse Norman is sympathetic to the concerns of the sector.
Given the significant role community transport plays in reducing social isolation, by providing transport for schooling, hospital and GP appointments, social events or the weekly shop, it is important the government responds to the consultation, which closes on 4th May, with measures which will ensure our community transport scheme continue to thrive.