Fears raised over future of community minibus service
Additional support needs pupils at the Anderson High School will be among those affected when a community minibus service stops at the end of the year.
That is the fear of chairwoman of Voluntary Action Shetland Catherine Hughson.
VAS announced this week that the Community Minibus Project – which gives a cheaper hire rate to community groups – was being halted for financial reasons.
Following a commissioned report, VAS said the ASN service at the Anderson High School is the biggest user of the minibuses project and the ASN service stated it could not function without the minibuses.
The minibus project has struggled to break even, and VAS has cited rising costs, a lower demand and reduced income as reasons for pulling the service.
The three minibuses were previously run by Shetland Islands Council and were used to provide transport to third sector organisations at a reduced cost.
In December 2013 VAS purchased the vehicles after the council agreed to offer them up to community groups.
At a council meeting in August that year, members were told losing the buses could save the SIC £23,000 a year.
It would also no longer require an estimated outlay cost of £135,000 every five years to replace the vehicles.
In a statement issued by VAS on Tuesday it said: “Various discussions were held around community transport provision by the council and also the possibility of VAS delivering a pilot scheme that would assist with the ongoing costs associated with the minibuses and the possibility of subsidising the groups using the minibuses for their activities.”
However Mrs Hughson said no contract had come to fruition.
She said: “I am very disappointed that we could not secure the funding to enable us to continue to support the users of this service the majority of whom are the most vulnerable in our community, but as with all third sector groups with reducing income and rising costs we must consider the sustainability of all our services.”
She added: “They are all ageing [vehicles] so they are costing us a fair bit to keep them on the road, as well as not being able to secure any kind of contract from the council that might have helped us sustain it [the project] for the community.”
Mrs Hughson admitted VAS “didn’t get the contracts that we thought we might get” and will sell off the vehicles to cover its deficit.
“We had discussions with the council because we thought we might get a pilot project to use one of the minibuses – that might sustain the other two.”
“We’ve not made any profit on it at all,” said Mrs Hughson and VAS had used its own resources to support the service.
Asked if the situation could have been avoided, she said: “I think it probably could’ve been, but I think the timing has just been wrong for them [the SIC].
“They have gone through various transport reviews and they have just awarded a lot of contracts which we are not able to put into because of the nature of who we are.”
If the council had “thought out of the box” and agreed to the pilot for a year, it wouldn’t have done any harm, she argued.
VAS also commissioned a report from the Community Transport Association to decide on the sustainability of the project.
VAS said the report found it had done a very good job at taking over the project, but demand for the service had not been as anticipated.
Asked if VAS had approached Shetland Charitable Trust for funding, Mrs Hughson said it had not as it would be considered a new bid and “we know what the answer will be.”
In a statement issues to the Shetland Times, SIC transport chief Michael Craigie said the council part funded a study that was undertaken by VAS, “looking at what would be required to develop the capacity to undertake a community transport operation recognising it is a complex area.”
Alongside the study, Mr Craigie said the SIC postponed the letting of contracts” to ensure VAS would have the opportunity to secure work should they choose to develop community transport operations”.
He added the SIC could hand out sizable contracts to voluntary organisations without a tendering process.
However Mr Craigie believed that VAS had carefully considered its position providing a community transport and “the position they now adopt is the outcome of that process”.
Following the statement Mr Craigie said spoke to The Shetland Times and was keen to have discussions with VAS about the matter.
“I beleive there’s a genuine misunderstanding and the only way to resolve that is to speak,” he said.