The services run by community transport operators are of vital importance to our transport sector and communities. During the most recent financial year, the Government supported community transport operators with almost £3.1 million through the bus service operators grant. A number of projects from the £11.5 million building connections fund will also provide new community transport links to support those most at risk of isolation.
That is a tiny amount to invest in community transport. My constituency is largely rural, and people in our villages—particularly older people—are left isolated because profit-making bus companies are not interested in serving them. There is some community provision, but very little funding. Will the Minister offer my isolated communities some comfort and commit more money to that sector, either directly or through the combined authority?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that community transport operators, even within his own community, opened a new service as recently as a few months ago, with extra support from the Department and the bus service operators grant fund. I looked on his local council website to check what was happening with community transport, and there was a reference to the funding that the Department for Transport had provided. The council said that the excellent public community transport in the borough was being provided by funding provided by the Department for Transport.
Until recently, the No. 5 bus service that passes through South Killingholme in my constituency was supported by a Government grant. The local authority is making provision for community transport to provide an alternative, but it will not replace the existing service. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss whether other funding streams can be found to support the service?
Meadowgreen health centre in Sheffield is moving, leaving the entire Lowedges estate completely unconnected to its GP surgery. Does the Minister agree that, under such circumstances, passenger authorities should be required to consult on bus routes to ensure that they are connected to GP surgeries? Will she write to South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive to ensure that it does just that?
The hon. Lady raises two very important issues. I will meet her to see what I can do to help out. She is right that if bus services are being changed, there needs to be communication with not only the traffic commissioner, but the local community. I am more than happy to sit down with her to see what is happening.
Those are two very important permits, and I know that they have previously caused some anxiety in the sector. Of course, we carried out a consultation. I want to make sure that we respond appropriately, which is why we will take our time to make sure we get it absolutely right. It is important to note that we are working with community transport operators and the Community Transport Association, which receives a substantial amount of funding from us. It is important to note that the status quo as it is today for community transport operators continues.
What steps is he taking to ensure that community transport groups will not require a licence when the Government align sections 19 and 22 permits with EU regulations? The proposals that went out for consultation still carry a risk that small and medium-sized groups will need to pay in the range of £80,000 to £100,000, which would lead to the widespread disruption of those services. Does the Minister understand those risks?
I no doubt do not need to point out to the hon. Gentleman that I am a she, not a he, but no matter.
We are very supportive of community transport operators, which was why the consultation was so important. We will make sure that our response actually fits the fantastic voluntary work that takes place within our community transport network.
Community transport is a lifeline for many older or disabled people who would otherwise be trapped in their own homes, yet the Government propose to introduce a significant and unwanted extra burden on the charities that run those vital services. Age UK has reported that the majority of its community transport services would be forced to close because of the Government’s mistaken proposals. Will the Minister commit to reconsidering her approach and to working with, rather than against, the charities that run those vital services?
I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman’s statement, because the Government are yet to put out our response. We are working with the charities sector, including with the Community Transport Association and community transport operators. There is an EU regulation that we are trying to make this fit into, but we are committed to ensuring that our community transport operators continue to operate. That is why we have the £3 million fund and the £11.5 million building connections fund.