Our work here is (mostly) done…
Posted: 29 Jan 2020
On 24 January, Derbyshire Community Transport became an independent charity again, nearly two years after joining HCT Group. This is a story worth telling.
From time to time, we are approached by a community transport organisation that faces an existential threat. Grants are cancelled, contracts are lost, regulations change; this is the environment for modern community transport and it is a harsh one. Most of the time, we are not in a position to help, but sometimes, we can.
We were approached in early 2018 by Community Transport for Town and Country (CT4TC). They are a long-established community transport operator, starting out as Ripley & District Community Transport in 1986. Through a process of mergers and growth, they came to provide community transport services for much of the county of Derbyshire as CT4TC.
Times had become increasingly testing. CT4TC had made some progress in pursuing a social enterprise model, winning tendered contract work. However, they struggled with a more commercial style of operation and had started to lose money. The board of CT4TC began to look around for other options – the most promising of which was to join the HCT Group.
We were excited to take on the challenge. CT4TC has an incredible social impact in its area of operations and the issues that were holding it back were, whilst very significant, ones that we understood. Also, we knew that we ourselves could learn from them – particularly about how transport in rural areas can help address loneliness and social isolation.
For CT4TC, their reasons were also clear. At the time of the merger, Michael Usherwood, Chair of CT4TC, said “Joining HCT Group will bring considerable benefits… in terms of finance, business expertise, growth, influence and long-term stability.”
CT4TC joined in April 2018, rebranding as Derbyshire Community Transport (DCT) one month later. Importantly, the DCT board remained in place. We believe it’s important to maintain local governance for an operation like DCT – after all, how much of Ripley can we really know from here in Hackney.
It was at this point that our work began. It has been far from easy. Every dimension of the operation needed work – notably in engineering, but also in contract management, finance, fleet management, scheduling and so on. Colleagues from across the Group lent their time and expertise and we provided substantial resources to set the DCT house in order.
Even as the situation was challenging, there were real strengths to draw on. In particular there was real commitment. From the Board to the entire DCT staff team, there was a drive to make things better and the willingness to work hard to ensure that services for their community could prosper.
DCT is now in a good place - operating sustainably at a high quality. When we were approached by the local board to take the organisation independent again, there was a sense that we had added the fullest course of our support. We are pleased to step back. Our work here is done.
Even so, our association will not come to an end. For the past year, we have been delivering a support programme for community transport organisations called Future Journeys. Future Journeys combines practical support from HCT Group and funding provided by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Foundation for Integrated Transport. The funding comes as a combination of grant and loan, helping organisations as they develop as social enterprises.
DCT has moved from being a part of the HCT Group to being a Future Journeys participant. The programme will provide loan support to help with organisational standing – a bus operating requirement – and to invest in new IT to make the organisation more effective. Grant support will provide training that builds further skills for independence and HCT Group will continue to provide ad-hoc help in a variety of functional areas.
I am immensely proud of this outcome. They say it takes a village to raise a child. For DCT it has taken the very best efforts of HCT Group, DCT Staff and Board – alongside our funding partners in Future Journeys. As a consequence we have preserved vital community services for socially isolated older and disabled people. Last year, DCT provided over 90,000 passenger trips to disadvantaged individuals or community group members – significant social impact.
And yet, even in the midst of this success, there is something wrong here. The cost in attention, in time and in treasure – close to half a million pounds of treasure – has been extreme. Rescue missions are tough and doing this routinely can’t possibly be sustainable. How did this become our job? Community transport operators provide essential services. Their very survival should not depend on the lucky happenstance of a social enterprise able to take on such a commitment.
This type of intervention cannot be the answer. When a community transport organisation folds, most of the time, it’s not coming back, leaving the state to pick up the pieces of increased loneliness and social isolation at much greater cost and increased human suffering. Up and down the country, community transport operators are doing their best to make headway in a policy environment that straddles the border between neglect and negligence. As a society, we urgently need a national strategy that places community transport on a stable footing.