Disabled and elderly to suffer as community transport budget slashed by a third in £60m DRD cuts
Funding for community transport schemes across Northern Ireland is being slashed because of cutbacks, it has been revealed.
Up to a third could be wiped from budgets as a result of financial pressures, groups have been told.
Transport Minister Danny Kennedy needs to make savings of £60m this year, leading to reductions in spending across the board.
The move is likely to affect the most vulnerable in society, including the disabled and the elderly.
One community transport scheme based in Co Down said it had seen its funding sliced from £428,303 to £323,542 - a drop of 25%.
Another group in the Causeway area said funding for schemes there could be reduced by a third.
Ukip MLA David McNarry, a member of Stormont's regional development committee, has vowed to fight the cutbacks. "This is striking right at the heart of very vulnerable people in their communities," he said.
Community transport partnerships provide accessible door-to-door and group travel services to older people and people with disabilities.
The services are run by a wide range of community operators.
However, the Department for Regional Development (DRD), which helps to finance community transport, is cutting back on funding. Among the groups affected is Compass Advocacy Network, which helps people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health issues throughout the Causeway area.
Its director Janet Schofield said the group had been told that a third of all provision has been cut across the board. "We recognise that the current financial situation means sacrifices have to be made," she said.
"However, this is another example of the most vulnerable in our society being hit and the lack of respect for the services provided by the voluntary and community sector." One of the group's users attends a 'Base' project three times a week.
She said: "I live in a tiny village outside Ballymena. I can't drive, there are no buses where I live and my mum works from home so it's impossible for her to take me in to the Base in the morning.
"Community transport is a lifeline as it means I can get to my work and to the Base."
The cutbacks are due to be discussed when DRD officials appear before the regional development committee next week.
Mr Kennedy said that since becoming minister in 2011, he had protected the baseline budget for community transport year on year and, where possible, supplemented it with in-year funding.
He added: "My department will be working closely with the service providers to explore ways of delivering the service in a more cost-efficient manner and will seek to minimise the impact on the end user."
DRD said the grant to rural community transport had been cut from £2.75m to £2.4m.
Additional money made available last year, raising the grant to £3.6m, is unlikely to be available this time.
My View: Most vulnerable in society are hit again
By Janet Schofield
Our group works with people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health issues throughout the Causeway area.
In the last two days we have had a steady stream of service users, parents and carers concerned about the cuts to community transport.
Community transport is provided for some of the most vulnerable people in our society including people with learning disabilities and physical disabilities. The vast majority of our service users are unable to drive and, as a rural area, many public transport links are inaccessible or individuals are not able to travel on public transport independently.
If the people who depend on community transport could use public transport, they would.
More often than not, the community transport provision makes the difference between someone being at home and someone being at their job, at college, at one of the projects we run or training for work.
The knock-on effect of these cuts will be devastating to individuals, parents and carers at a time when welfare reform is already causing significant worry.
This isn't a free service - our members contribute towards their fare but it is subsidised, making it an affordable alternative to private taxis.
We have been told that a third of all provision has been cut across the board.
Further cuts to community transport will mean that many of our service users will be unable to avail of services, education, work placements, training placements, jobs, and social and leisure opportunities.
We recognise that the current financial situation means sacrifices have to be made.
However, this is another example of the most vulnerable in our society being hit and the lack of respect for the services provided by the voluntary and community sector.
- Janet Schofield is director of Compass Advocacy Network (CAN), a charitable user-led organisation that provides services to more than 250 people