MORE funding is urgently needed to train volunteer drivers to keep vital community transport schemes on the road, say charities.
The Community Transport Association (CTA) and Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) want the to allocate a slice of its recently announced £40m funding for social action to rural community transport.
Cuts to public transport in the countryside mean residents rely heavily on volunteer schemes for a wide range of journeys – from taking children to school to helping the elderly and sick get to hospital.
From solo car drivers through to fully-fledged bus minibus services, there are an estimated 2,000 community transport schemes running across England – one third in rural areas.
Of the 60,000 volunteers working in community transport, 48,000 are in rural areas.
But the rising price of fuel, worries over driver liability and the cost of training is putting people off becoming volunteers, says ACRE.
The charity – which is the umbrella body for the 38 county-based organisations that make up the Rural Community Action Network (RCAN) – says most of its members and the transport providers they work with are finding it harder to recruit drivers.
To help tackle the problem, ACRE has joined forces with the CTA to produce advice for community groups who are thinking of setting up a transport scheme, with examples of success stories across England.
The charities are calling for increased Government funding for minibus training to help volunteer drivers overcome hurdles imposed by driving licence restrictions.
Martin Hawkins, ACRE Housing, Transport & Services Officer, said:"The Cabinet Office recently announced a surge in volunteering, alongside a pledge to invest £40m in initiatives to 'use social action to help solve some of the thorniest social issues'.
"ACRE is calling on the Government to allocate some of this funding towards training for community transport schemes in rural areas, where the need can only become greater as older volunteers retire and public transport shrinks.
"Community transport schemes are a lifeline for people living in isolated rural areas, especially for vulnerable groups such as the elderly and disabled. These schemes play a big part in keeping the country moving.
"However, our nationwide research shows there is a reducing pool of people who feel able to take on a volunteer driver role. Fewer people are retiring early and others have other demands upon their time, such as looking after their grandchildren.
"There are also cuts to volunteer centres, who traditionally also helped in the recruitment of volunteers, making it increasingly difficult for them to recruit, match and manage volunteers when they become available.
"The rising costs of motoring are also affecting recruitment. The flat rate increased to 45p per mile recently, but for many people this does not cover their costs."
Mr Jawkins said it was especially hard to find volunteers to drive heavier minibuses, as candidates often did not have the required D1 category on their driving licence which enables them to do this.
Drivers are concerned about their potential liabilities when carrying a minibus with up to 16 passengers.
"People who obtained their driving licence after 1997 are only allowed to drive smaller, lighter minibuses with fewer than 16 seats and under certain weights.
Over these limits, they will need to take an additional test, costing well over £1,000, which is not affordable for most small-scale rural transport schemes.
"This is becoming a real issue, and over the next ten years volunteer recruitment will be limited to older drivers, who will eventually retire from volunteering".
Mr Hawkins added: "With all these hurdles to clear, it's not surprising that it's getting harder to recruit volunteer drivers.
"People do want to help but are put off by the barrage of requirements before they can get behind the wheel.
"We're urging people not to be deterred. Setting up a community transport scheme is hard work, but it is rewarding and there is plenty of advice available."
Victoria Shortland, Rural Transport Co-ordinator for the CTA, said the charity had seen improvements to services and new community transport initiatives created and following £20m of funding given to England's 76 rural local authorities by the Department for Transport.
Ms Shortland said: "It has seen some local authorities put funding into recruitment campaigns for attracting new volunteers to the sector with positive results; however initiatives like this need to be continued to retain the good work of volunteers.
"We'd like to see more funding ploughed into training to ensure schemes continue to flourish."
"Our CTA advice service is always open to groups setting up a new community transport group and those with existing services."
The CTA has just launched a new community transport online database which allows members of the public to search for their local community transport group, making it easier to find local service.
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