Those with long memories may remember a big-talking flagship policy the Tories put forward way back in 2010 as an alternative to properly funded government services. The idea was that instead of local communities being provided with local services, the government would withdraw support and instead, an already down-trodden society would be ‘reinvigorated’, voluntarily providing government services themselves.
The policy never took off, and the promised volunteer armies never materialised. In fact, David Cameron’s ‘big society’ network has just been wound up and is being investigated by the Charity Commission for misuse of government funds. The years of cuts have seriously degraded access to services, opportunities, and employment for isolated communities in Britain. In my role on the transport select committee, I have been trying to save our local bus services, with one in five now at risk from lack of funding.
Having good transport infrastructure is the bedrock of economic growth and plays a huge role in the opportunities for vulnerable groups; poor infrastructure hampers government goals and reduces access to government services. The young, the older, the unemployed, those on lower incomes and those with disabilities, are disproportionately affected by cuts to public transport. Nearly two thirds of 17 to 20-year-olds and disabled people do not hold a driver’s licence and just a third of unfilled low skilled job vacancies are accessible within 30 minutes by public transport.
Without properly funded bus services, these vulnerable groups quickly become isolated, relying either on taxi services or on volunteer providers, neither of which are realistic replacements. Children need buses to get to school, our elders need them to attend doctor’s appointments, and the unemployed need transport for their job interviews. Taxis are prohibitively expensive for these groups and volunteer providers cannot abandon a full-time job to ferry around their communities.
Too often ‘isolated’ is conflated with ‘rural’ by the Department of Transport and support is not provided to communities most in need. Isolated communities exist everywhere, in rural areas, urban, suburban, and island communities, yet the Department of Transport has no clear definition of what an isolated community is. How can we hope to solve this problem if the people responsible are unable to define it?
Our communities need a total transport policy, one that recognises our committee’s recommendations, properly identifies which communities are at risk of isolation, and takes into account vulnerable groups when targeting bus services. We need a 21st century transport policy that integrates our communities and rolls out innovations such as London’s Oyster card across the country. Cuts in funding are a false economy; for every pound spent on bus services in isolated communities, you get three back, generating over a billion pounds in direct benefits.
We need a transport policy for the future, not one based on the hot air of the ‘big society’. By impoverishing our bus services, we are impoverishing our communities and risk increasing the vulnerability of sections of our society further.
Sarah Champion is member of parliament for Rotherham and sits on the transport select committee
The transport committee’s published report and recommendations can be found here
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