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15 March 2006

S2M-3882 Community Transport (Banff and Buchan)

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 15 March 2006

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]

... ... ...

Community Transport
(Banff and Buchan)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The final item is a members' business debate on motion S2M-3882, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on the Banffshire Partnership Ltd and Buchan Dial-a-Community Bus. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates the Banffshire Partnership and the Buchan Dial-a-Community Bus, who provide an essential transport service in areas with virtually no public transport; notes that transport problems faced by many people in rural communities lead to many forms of exclusion; further notes that at present the national concessionary travel scheme does not encompass transport outwith conventional services, and hopes that the formation of Transport Scotland will enable new ideas to be implemented to tackle the problem of rural transport.

17:07

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): This is my first members' business debate in this session of Parliament. I do not make extensive use of the facility, so when I do so it is because there is a subject about which I feel passionately and which I think it is important for us to discuss. Some aspects of community transport have perhaps been subsumed by other issues, so I thank colleagues who have added their names in support of my motion.

As we all know, community transport plays a vital role in our constituencies throughout Scotland. In Banff and Buchan, which I represent, people's transport needs are particularly acute. My constituency may soon be the only one in Scotland without either a railway or an airport—that possibility is contingent upon the Borders rail link proceeding. The land area of my constituency is approximately 455 square miles. In common with the rest of Scotland, it is—because of rising fuel costs—now substantially more expensive there than it used to be to get from A to B.

The 2005 edition of the "Scottish Transport Statistics" publication states that in a constituency such as mine—Aberdeenshire is the most rural council area in Scotland—44 per cent of passengers have to wait more than 64 minutes for a bus, while another 15 per cent of passengers have to walk for more than 14 minutes to get to the nearest bus stop. It can be impossible for elderly or disabled people to walk such a distance.

In rural Scotland generally, the number of key facilities—shops, post offices, schools and so on—has fallen by about a third in the past 25 years. The shrinking of the numbers of such facilities makes it even more difficult for people to reach their ever more distant facilities.

Despite Banff and Buchan's rural character, we have the greatest proportion of households—a quarter—in Aberdeenshire with no car. Even when people own a car, they have to share it with other drivers and do not necessarily have ready access to it. That illustrates the need for a coherent community transport programme. I congratulate the Banffshire Partnership and Buchan Dial-a-Community Bus, which offer a lifeline to people in my constituency who do not have access to other forms of transport. There are many similar examples in other parts of Scotland, under the umbrella of the Community Transport Association.

Over the years, the Executive has supported the services in my constituency morally—by appearing for photo shoots—and financially. People such as Clare Mather and Rachel Milne, who work in the two services to which I have referred, have the determination and spirit to fight for the people who need transport most. They now need our continued support.

The dial-a-bus service runs five days a week and takes customers from all over rural Buchan to shopping centres and back to their homes. The service supports disabled and frail people with wheelchairs, walking aids and volunteer escorts so that they can have a little independence rather than their having to rely on family or friends for help. The buses are fully adapted, everyone in the local community can access them and their services are reasonably priced because of the support that they are given. In November 2001, the service achieved investors-in-people status and was successfully reassessed for that three years later. Four thousand people a year use the service.

Banffshire Partnership Ltd has been going as long as the Parliament has and it runs a bus service from 6 am until sometimes almost midnight. It supports 1,000 rurally isolated individuals and perhaps as many as 66 community groups. It got a grant from the Big Lottery Fund to purchase a minibus and to cover salary costs. The partnership also operates a community car scheme in which volunteers drive their own cars and are compensated for that. However, like many such organisations, it is running out of money because it is a victim of its own success. Perhaps it is also a victim of the Executive's recent focus on prioritising the free national bus scheme.

Two issues in particular have been highlighted, but I want first to welcome the national concessionary bus scheme, not simply because I will qualify for it later this year but because a focus on rural needs is embedded at its heart. However, the scheme should be extended to include community transport. If a bus service gets a service operator's grant, surely it should be possible to incorporate the service in the national concessionary scheme. Currently, the scheme is open only to scheduled bus services, which hurts people whom conventional transport currently does not support. We in Parliament must not fail those people.

Commercial services quite properly cherry-pick routes on which they can make money and, where routes are sub-economic, commercial services are often given support. Community transport, by contrast, makes the most difficult journeys and may get only 40 per cent of what commercial companies receive. Charities have to come in to fill that funding gap, but that involves a lot of paperwork. It can be heartbreaking, when there is not enough money, to turn down people who want trips.

The previous Minister for Transport and Telecommunications, who has been elevated to greater heights, got it right when he said:

"Good, affordable transport services are vital to the quality of life of everyone in rural Scotland".

However, that sentiment has received a lukewarm response because of recent developments.

Let us be fair: the rural community transport initiative has funding of £2.8 million, which is welcome. That is on top of the £18 million that has been provided since 1998. However, that funding takes place in the context of a transport budget of £3 billion, so we are not talking about a big share of the money. We are left in a position in which local authorities essentially pick up the tab. They have the discretion to do that, which is fair. The situation is so far, so good in Aberdeenshire and in other places across Scotland, but that is an uncertain foundation for enabling such services to flourish in the future. We need a new and redefined partnership between the Executive, councils and various community transport organisations. We want to grant to many disadvantaged people in our society the independence and freedom that we who are able-bodied take for granted. When we support community transport, we do that.

I inform the minister that I looked at the Transport Scotland website today before coming to this debate and it states—in relation to the free bus service—that

"People aged sixty or over and disabled people will be able to travel free on ANY local bus".

The word "ANY" is in capitals, but that statement is not true when the local bus is a community transport bus.

The minister can correct that oversight. It would take merely a bit of time, a bit of money and a willingness to respond flexibly. Tavish Scott should get his civil servants on the case tomorrow. If he does, he will earn the gratitude of many people throughout Scotland in town and country. My focus has been on rural services, but important community transport initiatives exist in urban areas as well.

A nationwide bus scheme means little if the disabled or older rural dweller cannot gain any benefit from it. No benefit can be gained if there is no bus.

17:15

Stewart Stevenson
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