Stormont funding cuts could spell end of road for elderly transport service across NI
Fears are growing that a scheme which helps thousands of elderly and disabled people to access vital services in Northern Ireland could be at risk over funding cuts.
The door-to-door transport scheme has provided more than 216,000 journeys in the last year to help people living in isolated rural areas.
There are currently 11 Rural Community Transport Partnerships across Northern Ireland.
The service receives most of its funding from two government departments.
Investigative website The Detail has discovered that the service's main government funding has been cut by 33% since 2014, wiping out more than £1million from the overall community transport budget for Northern Ireland.
The Infrastructure and Agriculture departments now say they cannot guarantee that furthers cuts won't be made.
The not-for-profit community service Dial-A-Lift ensures that some of the most vulnerable members of society can attend doctor and health centre appointments as well as trips to the pharmacy, Post Office, shopping, hairdressers or to visit family and friends.
It is run by 11 Rural Community Transport Partnerships and operates in eight areas across Northern Ireland
It is funded mainly by Stormont's Department for Infrastructure (DfI), with support from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), and aims to combat isolation.
Tim Cairns, director of policy and public affairs at the Community Transport Association Northern Ireland, who previously worked as a special advisor to the First Minister, told The Detail: "I know what is wasted across government, it is little wonder people get angry at how decisions are made and money is squandered in their area.
"I think across the voluntary sector government has chosen a lot of low-hanging fruit when they're making cuts. It's easier to cut from the voluntary sector than it is to make tough choices in government."
In total 216,000 trips covering 2.5 million miles were facilitated by community transport providers across Northern Ireland by April 2016.
Community transport, which currently receives a £2.4million annual grant from the DfI through the Rural Transport Fund (RTF), uses a fleet of minibuses and voluntary car drivers to give people in rural areas access to work, education, healthcare, shopping and recreational activities.
A number of supporters of the service, however say that it reduces the burden on the health sector and believe the Department of Health should also provide funding for the scheme.
Mr Cairns added: "It's absolutely scandalous that the Department of Health gets the biggest benefit from community transport and yet pay nothing from their budget for the operating cost of this service."
The service is now under review as part of Stormont proposals to change the delivery of public transport in Northern Ireland.
Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard told The Detail: "I recently wrote to the Health Minister, Michelle O'Neill to suggest a meeting to discuss the potential for her department and the health trusts to consider helping to part grant fund the Rural Community Transport Partnerships.
"This request was based on the increasing demand on Rural Community Transport Providers to help with the emerging requirements for health related transport."