Agenda item

Mr Mike Whiting (Cabinet Member for Planning, Highways, Transport and Waste)


1.            Mr Whiting explained his role as Cabinet Member and offered a written report (circulated to the Select Committee after the meeting) which set out in detail how the Public Transport department delivered services which sought to counter loneliness and social isolation.  He explained that the department’s mission statement was to help enable access to education, health and community services for diverse users across Kent, through the planning, procurement and management of public transport services”.


2.            This was done by managing the subsidised bus service and delivering statutory and discretionary bus services, as well as community transport services and the free bus pass service for older and disabled people. Statutory services included those on which children relied to travel to school, while the other services listed above were mostly discretionary. Community Transport covered a range of services, including the County Council’s own Kent Karrier service and services delivered by other operators but supported by the County Council.


3.            Mr Whiting acknowledged the role that transport services could and did play in addressing social isolation and said the County Council needed to find a way to manage service provision and support isolated communities by making the best use of the resources available. However, much of the service which could contribute most to addressing social isolation was discretionary rather than statutory and, as such, was not the subject of any extra funding from the Government.


4.            Mr Whiting was asked how committed the Cabinet was to overcoming social isolation, especially in rural areas where people could not access services due to a lack of transport, by helping more people to access community transport services. He explained that there was a general commitment to addressing these issues, by the Cabinet and by all elected Members.  Many other issues arose from social isolation, as people could not go out and about, attend medical appointments, visit friends and take part in clubs and social activities. The ability to engage socially was known to have a positive impact on people’s physical and mental health and benefit their quality of life. However, he was unaware of any statistical study to quantify the impact of investment made in community transport and the benefit this investment would bring.


5.            Social Services was a huge area of local authority expenditure, and it would be helpful to be able to demonstrate that every £1 spent on preventative services could save a given figure on the support services which would be required to address the negative effects of loneliness and social isolation.  It was important also to assess if each £1 spent could be spent more effectively and if it was being spent in the right place. He pointed out that the Kent County Council had continued to subsidise bus services while many local authorities had not. If evidence were to arise that funding could be directed more effectively, the County Council should take notice of this.


6.            It was suggested that, if a link between the relief of social isolation and tangible savings to NHS services could be demonstrated, the County Council could ask the NHS to make a contribution to the costs of providing those preventative services. Mr Whiting agreed that prevention was certainly better than cure and suggested that this could perhaps be a recommendation that the Select Committee might want to make.


7.            Mr Whiting was asked about the pattern of uptake of the free bus pass across the county and if there was any geographical variance. This was part of the Big Conversation.  Bus companies would be aware of the pattern of use of the free pass and would be able to provide statistics for its use, and would also be well aware of the needs of rural communities.  Local residents’ groups had embraced the concept of ‘use it or lose it’ and had been successful in the past in getting some rural services reinstated.   


8.            A comment was made that bespoke local transport services were critical in helping rural communities access the medical and other facilities which could help people to live independently for longer and avoid them needing to access care services later, at a greater cost to the County Council.   


9.            Mr Whiting was asked how and when budget allocations for transport service were made.  He explained that budget setting was an ongoing process.


10.         The Chairman commented that statutory bus services did not necessarily meet the requirements of rural communities.  Mr Whiting explained that there were no statutory bus services for older people.  The statutory services were tailored to the needs of school children, to meet the County Council’s duty to help children to access a school place, but there was no equivalent statutory duty to provide services for older and disabled people and for those in rural areas.  The Kent Karrier service had various age and medical criteria with which potential users would need to comply.


11.         The County Council worked hard with local bus operators to provide services where they were most needed. For each journey made by a passenger using a free pass, a service operator might receive only £1 in income, and if a service were carrying only a few passengers on each journey, that service would very quickly become non-viable, economically. The County Council needed to test the Government’s appetite to increase its funding contribution to help such services to continue running, but in the meantime it would continue to make best use of the available funding.


12.         The point was made that social mobility was not the only solution to loneliness and social isolation; one could be alone in a busy supermarket or at a social venue.  Bespoke transport services and use of technology could help to some extent, but many people could not afford or were not able to use technology. Also, rural communities were not the only ones struggling with access problems; some urban housing estates experienced similar problems and had no bus service on a Sunday or bank holiday.  Although it was understood that bus companies would not want to run a non-profitable service, they could surely not afford to ignore whole sections of their potential clientele.  They could afford to run some lightly-used services, and such services were highly valued by the people who did use them. Mr Whiting gave an example of services in Romney Marsh, which had been improved as part of the Big Conversation.  He added, however, that the County Council was not a commissioner of services in the way that, for example, Transport for London was a commissioner.


13.         The point was raised that the Bus Bill included the possibility for services to be provided by franchise, but the Secretary of State had made it very clear that franchises would only be available to unitary authorities and mayors.  Kent, as a Shire county, would not be able to commission services in this way.   


14.         Reference was made to the Talking Bus service, which was currently being trialled in Maidstone by Arriva.  Older people would catch the bus with the purpose of chatting during the journey.  They would go to a coffee morning or other event and then catch the bus back for another chat.  This was a project that the Select Committee could look at.  Mr Whiting said this was a good idea and something he would support.  As with the Kent Karrier service, people catching the bus at the same times through the week would meet the same group of fellow passengers and be able to get to know each other.  The journey could itself become a social experience and benefit participants in more ways than allowing them to access shops and events. 


15.         Reference was made to past public meetings about local bus services, attended by Arriva, following which three new bus services were introduced. However, all three services were withdrawn 18 months later due to lack of use.  Local people had said they did not use the services as they had been too infrequent, but the withdrawal of the services had left older people without a bus service in their village.  Mr Whiting was asked, if such services were not being used, were there some areas of the county in which residents perhaps did not wish to have a bus service.  Mr Whiting referred to the principal of ‘use it or lose it’ which applied to bus services, which the public seemed to accept and understand - until their bus service was threatened.  It would be good not to have any areas of the county where there was no bus service at all, and he would seek to ensure that as many communities as possible were served.  However, if a service was not being used, it would be very hard to justify continuing to spend money on it. If the County Council could build up a service to the point at which it would be commercially viable, it could then hand it back to a company to run, but something which was unsustainable financially would not be continued. Developers of new housing sites were often asked for section 106 contributions to a bus service so the new community would have a service available to them, but if this service was simply not used it would not be commercially viable and would not run for long after that subsidy ran out.


16.          Mr Whiting was asked if some bus services might not have survived because they had been inadequate. He said that some had been. A frequent service using smaller vehicles would be more reliable and attract people to use it, but subsidising a service running every 10 minutes, for example, would be very expensive.


17.           A comment was made that, in places where there was a reliable bus service, some residents would choose not to have a car. However, in some places, the bus service could not be relied upon as an alternative to running a car as it was too infrequent. Mr Whiting replied that service provision relied upon achieving a balance of what was affordable and what was beneficial.  For example, when a Post Bus service to a village was discontinued, a local group was formed and its members contributed to running a taxi-bus service to take residents to hospital and GP appointments and shopping in town. Users each paid £1 for a journey and the service ran successfully for six years but then stopped due to dwindling numbers.


18.          Reference was made to accessibility on buses and an example given of disabled passengers being denied entry as there was only room for one wheelchair user on the bus. Mr Whiting said this practice was unacceptable. In the 3% of bus services which the County Council ran it had included a clause in the contract to state that this should not happen, but in the 97% of bus services over which the County Council had no control it was not possible to do this. All bus services, regardless of who ran them, had to be licensed by the Traffic Commissioner’s office. 


19.         The ‘little and often’ model of service provision was supported, especially where this integrated with rail services, as this allowed people to make workable journeys without running a car, or maybe even owning a car. Mr Whiting agreed that this model was good and that a regular service increased usage a lot.  Kings Hill was a good example of a community served by a bus service linked to the rail service at West Malling station. It was then pointed out, however, that the two services had become un-coordinated and no longer linked effectively as the bus service had not adjusted its timetable when the rail timetable changed.  As a result, many passengers had stopped using either and drove instead.


20.         An example was given of a local bus service in Ashford which had changed its pick-up point, meaning that older people wishing to catch the bus to the hospital had to walk quite a way. Mr Whiting said he would look into this.


21.         It was pointed out that many people no longer needed to travel by bus to do their shopping as they shopped online and had it delivered. To use bus services to travel for leisure and social activities would not only reduce social isolation but help many people to stay younger and fitter longer and stave off ageing and depression.  Technology should not be seen as an enemy; in the future everyone would be using smart phones.  The County Council could take a steering role and look forward to advances in technology and how these could benefit older people and rural communities, to address social isolation.   Mr Whiting said he agreed with this view, in part. Some people feared technology and many older people could not afford it, did not use it and did not wish to use it, so he feared that to base services on the assumption that everyone had access to and could use technology could discriminate against older people. The County Council would need to acknowledge people’s fear of technology and assist them to overcome it. He agreed that many people who used bus services used them for social outings rather than shopping trips.


22.         Mr Whiting was asked what more he thought could be done, or wanted to see being done, to address social isolation by using public transport services.  Mr Whiting said that a clearer understanding was needed of the issues which affect people’s use of bus services, and the impact which those services could have on social isolation. The County Council could also look into the possibility of gaining any additional funding and understand better how it could use existing funds to deliver the best service possible. The Council needed to increase recognition and acceptance of the issues relating to and arising from social isolation and recognise what resources it needed to direct, to help where it could.  It was important to be clear that one size did not fit all; change and flexibility where both required.


23.         The Chairman referred back to the concept of £1 being spent in one service area leading to a saving of £x in another area, and said that the County Council’s partners needed to contribute to addressing social isolation. However, the County Council would need to be able to evidence the correlation between investment in services to reduce social isolation and loneliness and the resultant savings made, for example, in the reduced need for NHS services.  However, it may not be possible to provide such statistical evidence. Mr Whiting agreed that this may well be the case and said that if it were not possible to reach agreement locally, there would need to be legislative change, which would be costly and take a long time. However, the work of this Select Committee would surely add weight to the need for change.


24.         Mr Whiting was thanked for attending the session to help the Select Committee with its information gathering.  


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