Monday, February 18, 2013

Rural Transport System

By Michael Clifford
THE package arrived anonymously, on the same day last week, at 35 offices throughout the country.

Each office was a base for its local community transport company, which collectively make up the Rural Transport Network.

The package contained a government document, a draft proposal on how the transport companies are going to disappear. The document has been drawn up by an expert group for the eyes of county managers.

It outlines the mechanics by which a community transport network, built up over the last decade, will be dismantled, and reshaped under local authorities. Instead of communities designing transport, it will be done across regions encompassing a number of counties. Instead of volunteers guiding the service, it will fall to local authorities to decide where need is greatest.

The document in question, Rural Transport Programme — Restructuring Proposals, is believed to have been published last November. Somebody who saw it obviously felt it was high time the employees and volunteers of the network were told was what going on. The synchronised anonymous drop to the 35 companies last week is the first they have heard of what the future holds.

The rural transport programme has been in existence since 2002 when it was set up to combat social isolation. In 2003, it accounted for 151,000 journeys, rising to 1.7m last year. One typical journey would be to collect elderly people in outlying areas on a Friday morning to bring them to the nearest town to collect their pension. Another would be to organise for transport for school-children in rural areas to attend a swimming pool on a regular basis.

A survey undertaken last year showed that 56% of users are over-65, while two thirds are women. For some in rural Ireland, the system is the only connection with the world outside their home. “The door to door service has been a lifeline for many people,” says one manager in a Midlands company. “It brings people out of their homes. That attacks rural isolation.”

The main source of funding comes through government agency Pobal. Last year, funding came to €9.77m, down from €11m in 2010. Further cuts are planned, in line with cuts to be applied to CIÉ. These will see a 20% reduction in funding over the next three years.

The network has shown initiative by attracting funds from disability organisations and the HSE, which avails of the transport.

In 2009, the McCarthy report, known as An Bord Snip Nua, recommended abolishing the network: “Given the availability of private sector bus alternatives, the high level of car ownership, and the underutilisation of synergies with other publicly funded local transport services support the view that the level of direct exchequer assistance can and should be eliminated, particularly in light of current budgetary circumstances this programme should be ended.”

The report spread panic across rural Ireland. If ever there was an example of urban or city folk having no idea about life in the rural heartlands, then this was it. A day of awareness was organised for politicians, and finally it got through that the network was vital to the lives of hundreds of thousands.

However, change came dripping slowly. Last year, the National Transport Authority took over from An Pobal as the umbrella funding agency. The NTA has no experience in the area of social isolation.

The current proposals grew out of a value for money report that suggested administration costs in the network were too high, although there is acceptance that costs have been shaved in recent years.

The proposals, seen by the Irish Examiner, intend to replace the 35 community-based companies with eight regional authorities across the State. The scheme will be funded, and largely run, by county councils, leaving it open to political inter-ference, apart from anything else.

There are now widespread fears that the backbone of the network — the volunteers and local input and knowledge — will not survive the change, despite the stated aim of maintaining the level of service.

The uncertainty and the prospect of job losses mean that employees don’t wish to be named.

A manager in one of the large rural transport companies in the West told the Irish Examiner: “I’m very concerned at the proposal to separate supply and demand. It will take away the bottom-up approach and eliminate the voluntary contribution.”

The Midlands manager echoes the sentiment: “I would worry about the loss of voluntary boards and the community input.”

Many within the network accept that change was desirable. The organic manner in which the network grew left its overall structure unwieldy. For instance, there are five companies covering Co Cork, three in Galway, and two in Kildare. The network proposed reducing the number to one per county. That way, the community input could be retained.

However, with the voluntary boards now targeted for dismantling and the number of overseeing groups culled to eight for the whole State, it’s difficult to see how the culture of community service can be retained.

The size of the new bodies is evident in the analysis of the populations it will cover. According to the document: “Total population [of each new authority] varies from 227,829 [unit for May, Sligo, and & Leitrim] to 1,926,804 [unit covering Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Wicklow, and & Louth]. However, rural population [which is of particular relevance to the restructuring process] for this option has less variation, ranging from 189,906 [Westmeath, Longford, Offaly, and & Laois] to 388,101 [Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Wicklow, and Louth].”

Jobs will go also. Currently there are 108 employees in the 35 companies. Under the proposals, this will fall to 32. The proposal suggests that many others may be subsumed into the local authority sector. Thirty members of the current employee compliment are funded by different state agencies, and according to the proposal these may be subsumed into the local authorities, too.

However: “If that was not possible the once-off cost of redundancy would be no greater than €0.54m based on five weeks’ redundancy for each of the five years’ average service for an average salary of €35,000 and is likely to be a lower figure.”

As far as the members of the network are concerned, their input into the process has been minimal, and their core submissions ignored.

The administration costs of the network was one of the main reasons given for change. However, most companies have responded to the changed circumstances. Costs that were 20% of funding have now fallen to between 15% and 17%, just a little short of the desired level of the value for money report of 13%.

“Yes, costs were high,” says the Midlands manager, “but they have been coming down and you have to look at the costs as they were. It was a legacy of the times we lived in.”

For those who see the change as a further attack on rural Ireland, there is unlikely to be much support from their public representatives. Bringing the new structure within the ambit of local authorities means that councillors are likely to have an input into the new regime, which can be interpreted as democratic accountability, or opening it up to base political interference.

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