A Conservative Majority Government is in power after their big message blitz on budget responsibility and debt reduction. But throughout the campaign, they refused to say precisely where cuts will be made and what they will mean for service delivery.
In the last 5 years, the Department for Communities and Local Government has faced some of the deepest cuts of any in Whitehall, perhaps because the majority of the cuts aren’t actually in Whitehall? Town and city halls, especially in the country’s most deprived urban areas, have had to make year on year savings amounting to significant proportions of their budgets. Spend per head has fallen by up to £220 since 2010 (http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/cost-cuts-impact-local-government-and-poorer-communities). Libraries have closed, subsidised bus services have been cancelled, and care for the most vulnerable minimised.
And everyone knows that there are more, and potentially deeper cuts to come. How can Councils save more money? Administrative efficiencies, joint services, outsourcing, redundancies; they’ve all already happened. Local Government and its partners in the private and charitable sectors need to think ever more creatively.
The transport sector has faced many cuts itself, but could it save other services? Yes! Is transport only about getting people and goods from one place to another? No! A street can be so much more than a corridor for movement. It can be a marketplace, a meeting place, a café, a playground. Walking not only transports us, it improves our physical and mental well-being, allows us to be aware of our environment and to socialise with friends and family.
So what services can transport deliver beyond the obvious? Here are some examples:
In Massachusetts, the Boston Public Library founded Bibliocycle, a mobile library service on a bicycle. It helps those who cannot go to a library to access free books. Bibliocycle makes its rounds at community events, farmers’ markets and arts festivals. People can sign up for library cards, get a demonstration of digital resources and ask for help with reference questions as well as check out books. We’d all like our local library branch to stay open, but retaining a mobile service is better than nothing. And if it’s pedal-powered, it can go where a van cannot and is environmentally friendly.
In Liverpool, taxis are aiming to compete with buses by travelling along bus routes to the airport and picking up people from bus stops. Does this suggest a solution to cuts in government-subsidised bus services which are, by definition, unable to make ends meet? Such buses serve areas where passenger numbers are too low to cover costs, yet people without access to a car are otherwise isolated from jobs, education and health services. Dial-a-ride services cannot pick up the slack as they are usually charity/grant-funded and aimed at those with disabilities who cannot use normal buses. A taxi using bus stops could be commercially viable where a bus is not, offering a middle way between a dial-a-ride or door-to-door taxi service and a 45-90 passenger bus. Even if they could accept bus passes and were reimbursed like bus operators under the statutory scheme, this would surely still represent a saving to subsidising entire bus services?
In Reading, UK, one result of local government working more closely with the NHS since public health became a local government responsibility has been a creative approach to delivering health services to vulnerable groups: A double decker bus is providing ‘First aid, Information, Refuge, Safety, and Treatment’ in the town centre on Friday and Saturday nights and in hard-to-reach communities on weekdays. It offers savings to police and A&E services, whilst also functioning as a health outreach and educational facility. Considering the budgetary challenges facing social services and charities undertaking outreach, FIRST Stop is a bus service that has arrived right on time.
Let’s think. What other buses may pull up to the ‘other-services-delivered-here’ stop in a Local Authority near you?