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Stormont threat to lifeline for rural communities

A community transport scheme that has provided more than 216,000 journeys in the past year to help people living in isolated rural areas, including the elderly and those with disabilities, is under threat due to Stormont cuts and policy change.

More than 24,000 health appointments were attended in the last year by people with no access to public transport or a car – thanks to the door-to-door transport scheme run by 11 Rural Community Transport Partnerships across Northern Ireland.

The service’s main government funding has been cut by 33% since 2014, wiping more than £1million from the overall community transport budget for Northern Ireland. Now two Stormont departments - Infrastructure and Agriculture - have told Detail Data they cannot guarantee that further cuts won't be made.

Tim Cairns, director of policy and public affairs at the Community Transport Association Northern Ireland and who until recently worked at the heart of government as a special advisor to the First Minister, said: 

“I know what is wasted across government, it is little wonder people get angry at how decisions are made and money is squandered in their area. I think across the voluntary sector government has chosen a lot of low hanging fruit when they’re making cuts. It’s easier to cut from the voluntary sector than it is to make tough choices in government."

New data has revealed how the not-for-profit community service known as Dial-A-Lift ensured that some of the most vulnerable members of society could attend medical appointments, as well as routine shopping trips and outings credited with combating isolation. Dial-A-Lift is run by 11 Rural Community Transport Partnerships operating in eight areas across Northern Ireland. It is funded mainly by Stormont's Department for Infrastructure (DfI), with support from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), though supporters argue that the service reduces the burden on the health sector. Both the Infrastructure and Health departments are controlled by Sinn Fein ministers, Chris Hazzard and Michelle O'Neill.

Mr Cairns said:

It’s absolutely scandalous that the Department of Health get the biggest benefit from community transport and yet pay nothing from their budget for the operating cost of this service.

Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard told Detail Data: 

"I recently wrote to the Health Minister, Michelle O'Neill to suggest a meeting to discuss the potential for her department and the health trusts to consider helping to part grant fund the Rural Community Transport Partnerships. This request was based on the increasing demand on Rural Community Transport Providers to help with the emerging requirements for health related transport. I hope to meet with Michelle O'Neill in the near future on this issue."

However, a Department of Health spokesperson said: 

"The department is aware of the valuable service which Rural Community Transport organisations provide to people living in areas where regular transport links are difficult to access.The HSC itself commits substantial funding from its scare resources to provide transport for patients and social care service users. Any additional commitments could only be met by reducing resources for front line service across health and social care and this is not feasible."

Community transport, which currently receives a £2.4million annual grant from the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) through the Rural Transport Fund (RTF), uses a fleet of minibuses and voluntary car drivers to give people in rural areas access to work, education, healthcare, shopping and recreational activities. However, the vital provision - which is predominantly used by the elderly and people with disabilities to access a wide range of services - is under review as part of Stormont proposals to change how public transport is delivered here. 

Previously unpublished data obtained from DfI by Detail Data shows the lifeline that the 11 rural community transport partnerships are providing for members. Figures covering the period from April 2015 to the end of March 2016 reveal:

  • In total 216,000 trips covering 2.5 million miles were facilitated by community transport providers across Northern Ireland in the year up to April 2016.
  • 34% of trips were provided by a network of unpaid volunteers, the majority using their own cars to take people on trips including collecting benefits, getting shopping and visiting loved ones in nursing homes.
  • Almost 31,000 trips were to enable people, many with learning disabilities, to access education, training or employment.
  • 58% of all trips taken were by elderly users.
  • Almost half of all trips were made by people with disabilities.
  • Three quarters of trips were taken by women.
  • More than 24,000 trips provided were for healthcare-related appointments.
  • More than 100 trips a week are for hospital appointments. Other data shows that in 2015/16, 671 appointments were cancelled by the health service because hospital transport was not available.

To see detailed figures and more information on each of the rural community transport providers click here.

Detail Data spent three days with Fermanagh Community Transport and Magherafelt based Out and About Community Transport to see firsthand who relies on community transport.

During our shadowing of the service providers, Detail Data saw users supporting the local economy by spending money in chemists, grocery stores, tearooms, post offices, newsagents and using local health services.

Detail Data has also tracked and mapped all the journeys made by Fermanagh Community Transport vehicles on a day in October to highlight the service it is providing in one of the most rural parts of Northern Ireland.

Anita Flanagan, manager of Fermanagh Community Transport, said:

“Our services are vital to people who live in deep rural areas. Without Fermanagh Community Transport many of our members would be unable to access basic services such as shops, post office and chemist. Many people would have to ring for an ambulance if they were unable to access Fermanagh Community Transport services to see the GP. “As local services close and rural banks/post offices and health related services become more centralised, our members are finding it even more difficult to access essential services.”

Out and About manager Ashley Keane said: 

“For most of our users it’s a real lifeline. Where people live there is no bus running past their door like you would have in the urban centres every five, 10, 15 minutes. With recent cuts by Translink even some of those rural services have been cut dramatically or completely. We provide so much more than just the transport. It’s a listening ear, a befriending service. There are a lot of elderly people who don’t have family members, there’s no car sitting outside the door so there is no other option for them.”

Community transport users we met include an elderly woman in Maghera who lives alone, miles from her nearest bus stop and is recovering from a hip replacement; a Lisnaskea woman who can’t drive but depends on the minibus to take her to the home of her 98-year-old mother whom she cares for and a young Roslea woman with learning disabilities who makes the 50-mile round trip to her nearest further education college in Enniskillen.

May McCaffrey (78) lives three-quarters of a mile up a lane of a minor road near Derrygonnelly and told us without Fermanagh Community Transport I would not get out of the house from Sunday to Sunday.

Thomas Miller, who has sight problems, stated the service is vital because of the lack of public transport. The Castledawson pensioner added: It’s the company more than anything else.

To read the full story, by Lindsay Fergus, click here.

To see the data that provides the background for the story, click here.