Guess the topic of the very first research project I commissioned on becoming a think tank director 14 years ago. Social justice, human development, climate change? No, transport and not even a sexy form of transport at that – buses. As this excellent report from the Campaign for Better Transport states, two thirds of public transport journeys are made by bus and it is a particularly vital service for people on lower incomes. So while the final report may not have hit the headlines, it was a vital piece of work.
I was thinking about buses again as I prepared for a short speech I am making tomorrow to the Community Transport Association. Prepping has involved me getting to know a bit more about the sector. I am impressed. First, it is big and growing with at least 2,000 community transport associations operating in England and the number of permits and grants going to the sector continuing to rise. Second, it is vital to fill in the gaps between the major operators, gaps which are growing larger as a result of public sector austerity. Third, it releases the hidden wealth of community enterprise and volunteering with, for example, only ten percent of rural community car schemes employing even one part time employee.
In the CTA’s ‘State of the Sector 2012’ report its chief executive Keith Halstead identifies volunteering as one of three key issues, the others being funding (inevitably) and the potential of the Localism and Public Services (Social Value) Acts to increase awareness of, and support, for the sector.
But in my ten minutes tomorrow afternoon I will flag up two other key issues. The first is the accelerating drive towards city devolution. With Nick Clegg announcing the extension of city deals and the impressive Heseltine Report, this week will surely go down in the history of public administration as when the tide in England turned decisively against centralism and towards stronger urban governance. One of the areas being more fully devolved in some of the deals is local transport so a key challenge for community transport will be to get a place at the table as local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships take a grip on longer term transport planning and investment.
The second key area is technology. The combination of satellite tracking, on-line payment and social media technology is not only going to improve the economics of community transport but it is likely to lead to the expansion of precisely the slice of the market where community transport is often the main provider - between taxis and buses. There are many very ambitious commercial projects in development which draw on the scope technology provides for people to come together to share the use and costs of door to door transport. The technology is getting cheaper and cheaper, better and better, but unless small volunteer organisations are lucky enough to have technology experts in their ranks, and at least some money to invest in new systems, there is a danger (a) that they fail to take advantage and (b) that their services end up being crowded out (and made financially unsustainable) by bigger more commercial providers.
Indeed my reading has convinced me of the need for a quick and practical research project exploring the interface of community transport, economic devolution and technology. I might even propose it tomorrow.
A return to the past seems implausible. Exhausted as we are, a dash to the future seems unlikely. Nonetheless, however weary, we cannot stay rooted to this moment.