Government pledges to protect community transport schemes following

Rishi Sunak with Walter Head, operations manager of the Little White Bus at Hawes, right, who raised the regulations issue with him earlier this year, and one of the volunteer drivers.

The Government has pledged to protect community transport operations from law changes which could have threatened their existence.

Richmond MP Rishi Sunak has received a letter from Transport Minister Jesse Norman which says the Government is committed to “finding solutions, not putting up barriers” to the continued operation of volunteer-run bus services.

Mr Sunak had written to the Minister after concerns about the current review of the regulations had been expressed by a number of community transport operators, including the Little White Bus, based at Hawes, Bedale Community Minibus and The Bridge community centre in Catterick Garrison.

In his letter to Mr Sunak, the Minister writes: “The Government fully recognises the importance of the community transport sector” and that the Department of Transport believes that, with the exception of a small number of large operators who may in effect be genuinely competing on commercial terms with commercial bus operators, community transport operators should not be affected by future clarificatons of law.”

The Government has just completed a consultation with local authorities on proposed changes to the permit system under which community transport organisations operate.

Permits give exemptions to community transport organisation so they do not need to have an operator’s licence. This licence requires operators to incur additional costs for such things as a employing a qualified transport manager and for volunteer drivers to be fully trained to professional standards.

The Government was forced to act after being found to have incorrectly interpreted EU legislation in its guidance for the operation of the permit system. This followed a challenge by commercial transport operators, who claimed community operators had an unfair advantage.

Mr Sunak wrote to the Minister in support of North Yorkshire County Council’s response to the consultation.

In Mr Norman’s response, he says the concerns expressed by local authorities and the community transport operators “have been heard loud and clear”.

He added: “The community transport sector is unique to the UK and it is a shining example of communities pulling together for the common good.”

He acknowledged the uncertainty the review of the legislation had created but urged local authorities not to end or withhold community transport contracts.

He said a summary response to the consultation would be issued before the summer parliamentary recess.

Mr Sunak described the Minister’s response as encouraging.

He said: “It is clear Government understands the need not to take a sledgehammer to crack a nut in meeting its legal and regulatory obligations.

“Of course, we have to await the detailed response and the new guidance but the Minister’s response is very positive.”

The threat to Richmondshire’s community transport services was highlighted earlier this year by Upper Dales county councillor John Blackie.

Cllr Blackie, who runs the Little White Bus services for 65,000 passengers a year, said the proposals threatened to “wipe off the map nearly all the community transport in North Yorkshire”.

After attending a DfT consultation event on the proposals in Leeds, he said: “The losers in this world of over-regulation will be the passengers we provide services for.”