Tories given rough ride at Dial-A-Ride AGM

I attended the AGM of Swindon Dial-A-Ride recently. You may recall that Swindon Council was proposing to cut their funding by £50,000 a year. However, under pressure from supporters of Dial-A-Ride and public hostility, the Council backed down. Soon after they discovered that the Council was in breach of European Union procurement regulations, such that the service provided by Dial-A-Ride had to be put out to tender; or so they said.

DAR provides a service for elderly and disabled people who are unable to travel by regular bus services. The service improves the quality of life for people, some of whom, would otherwise be confined to their home. The AGM was packed out with service users and representatives of organisations who use the service such as Swindon Stroke Support Group, Living Options (a user led service for physically disabled adults 18-65), BATS (a visually impaired group who enjoy sporting and recreational activities). It provides door to door bus and car services. In 2009/10 it provided 24,131 single passenger trips (up 11% on the previous year). As well as an employed staff, DAR relies on driver volunteers.

Service users spoke movingly about the difference the service makes to their lives. Many of them are greatly worried at the prospect of it being tendered and the possibility of another provider taking it over. At the AGM it was clear that they feel very angry about the way they have been treated by the Council.

A failed business”!

The DAR Chair’s report records the fact that last June the Council initiated a “value for money review” of the organisation carried out by the Council’s consultants.

“We were told by the consultants (whose expertise lay in procurement and business analysis but with no background in Transport or in Charity work) that we were a failed business because we had made no profit. We had to explain to them that we were in fact a Charitable Organisation therefore our aim was not to make a profit but to deliver a service.”

However, the consultants did eventually say:

“In our opinion Swindon Dial A Ride provides a critical social transport service to those areas of the Swindon population who genuinely cannot make use of public transport. Therefore, from the point of view of the disadvantaged citizen, the service provides true value for money.

We believe SDAR offers a valuable service to the affected citizens that is not available anywhere else.”

The Chair continues:

“Speaking as a volunteer, an outsider in the field, I have found it surprising, shocking even, that professional people, so highly motivated, industrious and committed can invest so much expertise and care into an organisation, achieve such exemplary results, and be treated in the off-hand and shabby manner I have witnessed and given no recognition for the dedication and hard work that has built this service up over the last 24 ½ years.”

Price is not the only criteria…but

The Councillors present at the AGM, Garry Perkins and Peter Mallinson, gave assurances that, whoever was the provider, the service currently provided would remain exactly the same. Yet there was sufficient grounds for many present to doubt these assurances. For instance, the ‘weighting’ for deciding who the contract would be awarded to was announced by Mr Mallinson to be: 50% price, and only 15% quality of service. Inevitably people were concerned that the Council would take the lowest bid, which must impact on the service to some degree.

Equally of concern was the fact that the Council approaches the question as if the service was a commercial product rather than a public service. Since it is subject to commercial procurement rules Mr Perkins informed the meeting that there would be no consultation with the public or the service users. Clearly they think it is a “commercial” decision and the opinion of service users is of no consideration.

Mr Perkins also refused to confirm that the grant given to Dial-A-Ride would be maintained during the course of the contract (23 months).

Given the fact that Garry Perkins warned the audience of the Council facing a £30 million cut in their budget over 4 years, it is difficult to imagine that services such as those provided by DAR will come out unscathed.

The Councillors were given a very uncomfortable time. It was clear that of the many people who spoke, the overwhelming majority were sceptical about the assurances they gave. Of course, if they stick with their promises then everybody will be happy. They will certainly be held to their commitment by services users and user groups.

Clearly, every Council will face severe financial constraints as a result of the ‘austerity’ measures of the coalition government. But the problem is exacerbated in Swindon by the approach of the Tory Council, because they treat public services as if they are profit-making businesses. One of the reasons for the level of public anger over the Council’s proposed £50,000 cut in their grant to SDAR, was the fact that it was proposed at the very same time that the Council was proposing to risk Council tax payers’ money by providing a loan of £500,000 to a private wi-fi scheme. This said much about the priorities of the Council’s ruling group.

The Chair of DAR, in relation to the Council’s retreat over the £50,000 cut, said:

“This proved short-lived; cynics might say it was shelved until after the election. The fact remains that some members of Swindon Borough Council seem to have little care for Swindon Dial-A-Ride or our users but have cast their beady eye on money given for this service and want it for other projects that they regard as having more merit.”

The Councillors will no doubt deny this. One thing is sure. If they move away from the commitment they gave at the DAR AGM they will pay a big price. “No diminution of the service”, said Peter Mallinson. If there is any retreat from this there will be a very big and lively campaign to defend all of the service which is currently provided.

With £30 million cuts in 4 years, many services, whoever they are provided by, will come under attack. It is the poorest and most disadvantaged members of the local population whose lives are likely to be adversely affected by these ‘efficiency measures’. The job of those who want to defend these services is to try and get people working together, rather than face being picked off group by group.

Martin Wicks

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