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.
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.
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
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
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.
I congratulate Stewart Stevenson on the timeousness of his pertinent motion. Just the other week, the minister suffered a bit of pressure—as I am sure he will agree—from the Local Government and Transport Committee because, although everybody welcomes the concessionary fares scheme, it does not go far enough. A large number of people in Scotland who qualify for the pass do not have reasonable access to buses.
Over the years, I have visited the two organisations that Mr Stevenson mentioned; in fact, I visited when they got their most recent fully adapted buses. They have volunteers who give their time and they have people who work for very little money. A great amount of paperwork has to be done and people's safety has rightly to be ensured, but that is not fully recognised by the systems of support. The situation is the same wherever we go in Scotland.
I remember trying, as a councillor in the Trossachs, to get support from the council for community transport to villages that could not access a brand new recreational centre in Callander. The support went only so far, but pensioners and people with young families needed access. The problem is still with us.
The national health service used to give grants to groups such as Buchan Dial-a-Community Bus in order that they could provide patient transport. Patient transport is not user-friendly if a person lives a long way from a hospital. Some people, particularly disabled people, may not be able to be ready by half past 7 in the morning to get to an out-patient appointment in a clinic. There has to be flexibility, but Grampian NHS Board said that it could no longer afford to support the transport schemes in any meaningful way. The local council does its best.
The onus is on the minister to explain what he intends to do. There are huge gaps in services. As Stewart Stevenson rightly said, Transport Scotland's website contains the phrase "ANY local bus". People do not care whether it is a Stagecoach bus, a FirstBus bus or a community bus—it is just their transport.
Even in towns—there is a problem in the Deputy First Minister's constituency in Aberdeen—young people often cannot easily access recreational facilities. They may not live near public transport, the facilities may be a long way away, or it may be unsafe to get from where they live to a bus route. The same applies to elderly people. Access is an issue for many people.
The main bus operators have done a lot of work on disabled access, but that is a speciality of community bus services across Scotland—because of the flexibility of their set-ups, they cater for disabled people particularly well. It is important that the services be given the resources that will allow them to do that. Those resources have to be sustained because short-term, one-off grants to buy or run something are simply not enough. Once capital costs have been met, which often happens through the voluntary sector, we have to guarantee that running costs are reasonably supported—not necessarily paid for completely, but reasonably supported. Community bus services have to know that they will receive resources for the times ahead.
In another community in which I lived, people relied on the post bus. The Post Office drivers were very good, but that service has diminished across Scotland although it provided essential community links that allowed people to get to the post office or the bank, and to get their pensions, pick up things, do their shopping or whatever. No normal bus operator would find that provision of such a service is viable.
I presume that I am coming towards the end of my time, but I cannot properly see the clock in the corner.
I congratulate Stewart Stevenson for raising this issue. I wish to highlight in my comments the section of his motion that points out that, welcome though the concessionary travel scheme is, it fails to cater for many people in Scotland. The people for whom it does not cater fall into two categories: first, those who have a mobility impairment and cannot access a bus service, either because they cannot walk to the bus stop or because they cannot get on the bus; and secondly, those who live in—largely, but not
What can be done? Much is being done. In my constituency, the Badenoch and Strathspey Transport Company, which is run largely by the redoubtable Maggie Lawson, has been in charge of a successful scheme that has operated for a number of years. It is a community car scheme that fills gaps in public transport. It does not seek free car transport, but it wishes continuance of its subsidy so that the maximum fare is, say, £5. At the moment, the maximum fare is £7, which is for medical journeys, but people find that too expensive.
Maggie Lawson has pointed out to me—I hope that the minister will cover this—that such schemes rely on local authority funding. Only four local authorities—Aberdeenshire Council, Moray Council, Western Isles Council and Dumfries and Galloway Council—allow concession-card holders free travel on community transport. Maggie Lawson understands that those four local authorities have agreed to continue funding the schemes using money that the minister has allocated for discretionary concessionary travel, but the discretionary travel budget has not been ring fenced and can therefore be used to provide any council service. That problem is not unique to concessionary travel—it occurs in road maintenance, too—but it is a problem that leaves concessionary transport entirely to chance.
I also point out the growing tendency of people who would formerly have been transported by the ambulance service to be transported by other means which, again, are being provided through other funding arrangements. I understand that a patient transport service—PTS—is seeking efficient government funding to run pilot schemes in which it would arrange patients' transport. The voluntary sector, which would deliver the transport, is concerned that the scheme would be operated by the PTS but funded by others. That seems to be unnecessarily and unduly complicated and I hope that the minister will address that.
Finally, nothing comes for free. The Executive may well ask where the funding will come from. As the minister knows, in my opinion the funding scheme is overgenerous in that the rate of return that the Confederation of Passenger Transport
Stewart Stevenson is to be congratulated on lodging a motion that resonates with many people who are not often considered. Community transport schemes are the Cinderellas of transport provision. With car culture so ingrained in our lives, it is often not recognised that about a third of the population in Scotland does not have access to a car. Rural areas rarely receive the comprehensive service that suits the needs of everyone in the community, including those who are too young to drive, the elderly and—of course—mentally and physically disabled people of all ages. All are left excluded from local services and access to work and some, in extreme cases, feel imprisoned in their own homes.
Even if the Executive acknowledges the need to invest in greater improvements in public transport in order to address the serious issue of rising CO2 emissions, many people will still be unable to access the local bus service, however good it is. There is a real need for the Executive to realise that, however welcome the concessionary travel scheme is, it goes only part of the way. I read in an article in Third Force News today that the Community Transport Association is urging the Executive to ensure that all eligible passengers have access to an equal level of service provision. The work that Buchan Dial-a-Community Bus does in addressing those issues is invaluable. It provides the sort of individually tailored service that is essential to people who are simply not able to walk to a bus stop even if a service is available. Funding for such services is a constant problem and it concerns me that sufficient recognition is not given to the hidden benefits to the users in their improved quality of life. Being taken out shopping, to the doctor or even just to visit friends can make all the difference for people in respect of their being able to continue to live at home. Getting out of the house is often tonic enough in itself and can relieve the monotony and depression for which medication is often presented as the only solution. All those alternatives relieve pressure on and cost to the national health service.
There is also growing concern about the Scottish Ambulance Service's decision to categorise the medical need for ambulance transport and to leave up to 30 per cent of the non-emergency transport to the community
"We have a problem saying no. Our clients wanting trips to hospitals are often the most helpless and needy. I feel the NHS is really taking advantage of us."
Although I appreciate the financial burden that the NHS is under, I would like greater recognition of the preventive work that is the unintended benefit of Buchan Dial-a-Community Bus to people whose mobility is restricted for whatever reason. It would be a useful project for Transport Scotland to investigate fully the valuable role that community transport services such as the Buchan service and the equally long-running innovative service in Angus play in the transport arena. Its starting point should be the Mobility and Access Committee for Scotland and individual groups such as Dundee accessible transport action group—DATAG—that have worked tirelessly to improve access for people who are less mobile.
I am glad to have the opportunity to highlight and thank all those who play parts in such vital projects.
I congratulate Stewart Stevenson on securing the debate. I apologise for having to leave early, but I want to take part in the debate because I agree with the sentiments of Stewart Stevenson's motion, particularly that we should congratulate the Banffshire Partnership and the Buchan Dial-a-Community Bus scheme. Their importance has been well highlighted. They are another example of innovative action being taken in Banff and Buchan to address the particular needs of rural communities.
Access to transport is a key concern in rural communities and very important for people who have problems accessing public transport due to mobility problems or age. The Dial-a-Community Bus scheme tackles precisely those problems, which makes it invaluable. Such schemes show the real benefits that have already been reaped over the past years from the Executive's rural transport fund, which should be welcomed, although I acknowledge some of the wider funding issues that should be considered in future.
I also highlight, as Shiona Baird did, the immense contribution that is made by all those who are involved in running the schemes—from the volunteers who started the Dial-a-Community
As I worked for Help the Aged, I am keenly aware that lack of access to transport is a significant cause of exclusion in rural communities, particularly for older people. The Executive is trying to address the issue through the rural transport fund. I argue that it is succeeding. We would all like to have more services in rural areas, but the concessionary travel scheme is a great boost for those who use existing services. I hope that we can investigate how to give further support to community bus services through that scheme, which has evolved into a nationwide scheme. I am sure that there is room for further evolution. Because dial-a-bus services are responsive, they are invaluable in addressing issues around people's ability to access the usual bus routes.
I entirely agree that Transport Scotland should examine new ideas to increase access to public transport in rural areas, to ensure that current services are both well used and correctly directed, and to ensure that schemes such as the Dial-a-Community Bus scheme and the Banffshire Partnership continue to be supported. We should be thinking innovatively about these issues.
I recently met representatives of the north-east Scotland transport partnership, which is gearing up for the new structure. I am very confident that NESTRANS is well placed to meet the challenge. The Dial-a-Community Bus scheme shows what can be achieved. It is a success that we should learn from and build on. I am sure that we all agree on those issues across the parties.
I am pleased to tell the minister that I have already applied for my nationwide concessionary bus pass. I do not know whether I will get it on time. A parliamentary question about that is on the way to the minister, not on my personal behalf but on that of all the other people who have applied.
That is a personal assurance, is it?
I will speak to the second part of the motion, which focuses on rural transport problems—which,
I have asked several times whether the concessionary fares scheme will be extended to the carers of entitled people. There is not much point in a disabled person having a concessionary bus pass if the person who is helping them on to buses with their wheelchair does not have one. The present minister's predecessor was sympathetic on that point. I hope that there will be some movement on it.
I occasionally eavesdrop on the Local Government and Transport Committee—not very often, but sometimes, when its discussions are relevant to my portfolio. I listened to the evidence that was given on this issue. It spawned a series of written questions, which the minister answered last week. We need to make progress, so I will perhaps ask the minister the supplementary questions now, to save me lodging any more. I asked about demand-responsive travel schemes. According to the minister's answer, they are part of the concessionary fares scheme only if they are
"registered as a local bus service".
I would like that situation to move forward.
The minister does not hold information centrally on figures
"detailing demand responsive transport services available in each local authority."—[Official Report, Written Answers, 6 March 2006; S2W-23391.]
We are now in the computer age. I think that the minister could get his hands on that information.
We learn that community transport schemes are not available under the concessionary fares scheme unless they are "local registered services." I would like the minister to address that, too.
I asked the minister about
"the numbers and location of people entitled to the national concessionary fares scheme who will be unable to access transport."
His answer was that
"the Partnership Agreement commitment to assess improved concessions for people with disabilities ... aims to identify the latent demand for transport".
"This research ... is now nearing conclusion and we aim to publish in April 2006."—[Official Report, Written Answers, 6 March 2006; S2W-23380.]
We have been talking about a national concessionary fares scheme for five or six years. I am not in a churlish mood tonight, but the minister is dragging his heels, trying to find out now who will be excluded. I hope that we will have that information by April at the very latest.
I am delighted to have the minister's assurance that all of us who have applied for our national concessionary pass will get it in time.
I met officials of the concessionary scheme today, so I can assure Christine Grahame that as long as the application for her card has been received, she should receive the card by the end of next week. I will personally look into where her card is and ensure that it is taken care of.
I thank Mr Stevenson for lodging the motion and for the spirit in which he presented his arguments, which were, as usual, fair and to the point. I join him in acknowledging the role of the Banffshire Partnership and Buchan Dial-a-Community Bus scheme. It is probably one of most innovative local schemes of its type and one of the best in Scotland.
I ask colleagues to reflect on the thought that, from Edinburgh, we do not know the best way to operate such schemes. I would always argue that local bus or ferry operators or transport users have a better idea than would people working at the centre of what sort of scheme suits Mr Stevenson's constituents or mine, and how to put it together and ensure that it has a sustainable future.
Richard Baker was right to mention the Scottish transport awards. It is fair to reflect that Aberdeenshire Council, and its infrastructure and services convener in particular, received the rural transport award for its A2B scheme, which now operates in Alford, Strathdon, Peterhead and Fraserburgh—and which the council is looking to extend right across the shire, as we now call it. That is no mean achievement for the council and the officials who are no doubt doing the bread-and-butter work to make it to happen.
These successful projects are funded by the rural community transport initiative, which a number of colleagues have mentioned. The initiative is of particular help in more remote areas of Scotland, particularly those where there are no scheduled bus services or where services are
Some £15 million has been awarded to projects throughout rural Scotland since the scheme was introduced. The projects have played a significant role in reducing the social exclusion that people in those areas face.
The partnership agreement recognised the importance of demand-responsive transport, which a number of members have mentioned, and committed us to supporting enhanced rural demand-responsive transport pilots. During the past three years, we have funded a series of pilots in rural settings. There have been challenges to our ability to meet the need for flexible services. We currently have £3 million funding 13 rural pilots, in partnership with Aberdeenshire Council—which Mr Stevenson highlighted—with Angus Council, with Argyll and Bute Council, with Fife Council and with Highland Council, and there are pilots in urban areas, which Mr Ewing mentioned.
We have commissioned independent research into how those pilots have worked. I will consider that research and how we can expand demand-responsive transport provision and improve accessibility throughout Scotland.
If the minister is looking for ways to extend the concessionary travel scheme to incorporate community buses, could he consider where they link, or could link, to other forms of public transport? That might be a way of beginning an extension of community bus services. It would certainly help areas in my constituency, which are covered by Berwickshire Wheels and Teviot Wheels.
I understand Mr Robson's point about schemes such as Berwickshire Wheels. We need to encourage such schemes and think about how we can expand them. We must look to the methods and mechanisms that have worked in particular parts of Scotland, such as Mr Robson's constituency, to determine the best way in which to do so.
There has been some discussion of the national concessionary scheme. Every member proclaims that it is the best thing to do and then sets out lots of things about it that should be better, increased, added to or changed. A couple of weeks ago, in the Local Government and Transport Committee, Mr Ewing and I used a colourful phrase that I have forgotten for the moment—it was something about
There has not been a steal; there has been a commercial negotiation. I can say to Mr Ewing that, from my previous life, long before I entered politics, I know that, in such a negotiation, both sides do not always get what they want. A commercial negotiation involves coming to a deal that achieves the objective that both parties share. That is what we had to do, as I outlined at some length in the Local Government and Transport Committee meeting a couple of weeks ago.
The motion highlights the inclusion in the scheme of conventional services, which Mr Stevenson talked about. That means that local registered bus services and scheduled coach services throughout Scotland are included in the scheme, including those demand-responsive transport services that are registered local services.
While introducing the new Scotland-wide free bus scheme, we have been sensitive to the need to reach a financial agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities that ensures that we meet our aim of protecting concessionary travel on other modes of transport, including ferries and rail, and accessible transport schemes such as taxicard, dial-a-ride and shopmobility. As I have said to the Local Government and Transport Committee, we reached a settlement with COSLA—and, therefore, with local government across Scotland—that will protect the grant-aided expenditure that is outwith the normal national concessionary schemes. In that regard, I would like to thank in particular Alison Magee, the convener of Highland Council, who led for COSLA on that issue. It is important to recognise what was achieved in that settlement.
Does the minister accept that, while money is an issue in relation to community transport, it is perhaps more important that the minister and his civil servants find a way of bringing the concessionary travel scheme to the community transport sector so that there is uniformity of access for people who hold the card? That is probably more important than money, although, of course, we will not cease to talk about money as well.
I recognise the point that Mr Stevenson is making and, in a moment, I will deal with what we can do in the future. However, no minister or taxpayer can ignore the financial
Shiona Baird mentioned the Buchan community dial-a-bus in relation to patients and others who wish to access health services. There is an agreement with Grampian Health Board and the Scottish Ambulance Service to deliver patient transport. It is not correct to say that they are not funded to do so. The Buchan scheme needs only to provide patient transport service information to ensure that it is funded appropriately.
On the point that Mr Ewing made about community transport, it is not right to say that community transport is dependent on local authority funding alone. Rural community transport initiative funding of up to 75 per cent of project costs applies, so there is considerable help in that regard.
The first two years of operation of the scheme will be critical in building up the evidence base for future reflections on the scheme. I will certainly consider the points that have been made this evening and those that have been made by the Local Government and Transport Committee in recent weeks when I reflect on how we can improve and scope the future shape of the national concessionary scheme.