Seanad debates

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Adjournment Matters

Rural Transport Scheme

6:20 pm

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State. The issue I wish to raise concerns the rural transport scheme especially in Kerry. I understand the 12 months contracts have been shortened to six months and I am concerned as to what will happen when the six month contracts expire.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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The programme for Government commits to maintaining and extending the rural transport programme with other local transport services in as much as that is practicable.

The Government recognises that this programme, which was launched in 2007 following a pilot project between 2002 and 2007, can play a major role in combatting rural isolation and enhancing the mobility, accessibility and community participation of local people, particularly those at risk of social exclusion. This year, ¤9.1333 million is being allocated to the rural transport programme corresponding to some 93% of the 2012 allocation. This represents only a small decrease at a time when very difficult decisions have had to be taken to curtail or postpone other programmes. Given the limited resources, it is imperative that we deliver the rural transport programme in an efficient and effective way so as to achieve maximum value for the funding while providing a better service to users.

At present, 35 community transport groups around the country are being funded under the programme of which Kerry Community Transport Limited is one. I am advised that Kerry Community Transport Limited carried 145,970 passengers in 2012 and covered over 95 towns and villages. In the period 2003-12 the company has carried 992,964 passengers. Kerry Community Transport Limited has been allocated ¤574,859 rural transport programme funding in 2013.

I am well aware of the very valuable work done on the ground by these groups in ensuring that the transport needs of their local community are being identified and delivered within available resources.

However, given the limited resources and the recommendations of the value-for-money and policy review of the RTP published last year, it is essential that the current delivery mechanisms and structures are examined and revised.

In particular, the VFM review recommended organisational restructuring of the RTP to achieve greater programme efficiencies and beneficial economies of scale. The review also recommended that better alignment be established between the 35 RTP groups and local authorities.

Against this background, in January 2012 the Government approved new arrangements for the development and implementation of integrated local and rural transport services. These new arrangements are aimed at eliminating service duplication, better targeting of services at those with greatest need and the rationalisation of administrative structures relating to service planning.

The National Transport Authority, NTA, has been assigned national responsibility for local and rural transport services integration, including the rural transport programme, effective from 1 April 2012, putting such services in a broader transport context. The NTA is working to implement the recommendations of the VFM review.

A new high-level committee, the national integrated rural transport, NIRT, committee was established in April 2012, comprising key stakeholders and chaired by the NTA, to oversee and manage a partnership approach to implementing integrated local and rural transport in order to achieve greater synergies, better meet identified transport needs and deliver increased value for money for the Exchequer. I expect the committee to present a number of projects to me over the coming months which will test the level of integration that can be achieved across school, RTP and health services. The NTA is currently working with the committee to identify suitable projects.

I should acknowledge that integration measures are already being undertaken by various RTP groups. A recent survey conducted by the NTA showed that 28 RTP groups are involved at some level in working groups for integrated transport. In total, there are 23 working groups in place around the country, of which 19 could be deemed "active working groups". As a result, some very valuable groundwork is already being done to raise awareness of transport integration opportunities, to establish working relationships with key stakeholders at local level and in a number of cases, to advance integration projects towards implementation of services on the ground.

In relation to the revised organisational structures, work is under way to determine the optimal structure for the delivery of rural transport from an efficiency and service perspective. Discussions are taking place with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, the County and City Managers Association and the Rural Transport Network in the context of aligning the new structure with the local authority structure. Any revised structure must be devised having regard to current policy on the public service, including employment and pay policy. I am hopeful that agreement on the revised structure will be achieved in the second half of this year.

I must be clear, however, that the current structures of the RTP are not sustainable if the required efficiencies and savings are to be achieved. If these are not achieved, then with the limited resources available, services will decline. I do not want this to be the outcome.

Pending agreement on the revised structure, the contracts of RTF groups, including the Kerry Community Transport Limited contract, have been extended until end June 2013, with an option to roll the contracts over for a further six months if the restructuring programme has not commenced. While I can understand and fully appreciate that this creates a level of uncertainty for RTF groups, I am hopeful that the outcome will be a better service delivered more efficiently. I will work with all involved over the coming months to make any transition as smooth as possible.

Rural transport is a critical component of public transport services that is vital for the development of a fully inclusive society from both a social and economic perspective. I assure the Senator of my personal commitment to the continuation of appropriate local transport services to those in need in rural areas, while achieving the best value for money for the Exchequer through more efficient delivery structures and integrated services.

6:30 pm

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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As the Minister of State will be well aware, the rural transport scheme in Kerry is a vital piece of infrastructure, especially in combatting social isolation for those who are living alone and who, except for the scheme, would be isolated not only from their towns and neighbours, but from those of their own age group whom the rural transport scheme manages to bring together.

I note the Minister of State's answer. I am not entirely convinced that those involved in the rural transport scheme in Kerry will be comforted by it. I note he stated it could roll over if agreement has not been reached, but I fear that there are many issues to be ironed out and that if the rural transport scheme is cut back in any way, those benefiting would suffer the most. That is something with which we would not be happy and would not support. All I can say to the Minister of State is that as the situation develops and unfolds, I am sure we will have him back in the Chamber.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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I am well aware of the rural transport issues in Kerry. As Senator Daly will be well aware, I know the area-----

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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In particular, Waterville.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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-----including his own town, extremely well. I also visited the group a year or more ago.

We are stuck in a structure where there is a value-for-money report of which we need to meet certain requirements. There is a defined amount of funding. There is a defined requirement that we must meet given the financial circumstances.

However, I am a committed supporter of rural transport groups and the voluntary nature of what they do. I do not know whether there has ever been a Minister who has visited as many of them. I probably have met them all in some way, whether in their own areas or at the various different conferences which I have always tried to attend.

I believe we must get to a stage where there is greater joined-up thinking between rural transport, non-acute HSE transport, school transport and voluntary transport. This, in tandem with the rural hackney licence, which is a proposal that has come out of my Department, would help deal with the transport service issues in isolated rural areas and all of their social and economic consequences. We are making much progress in that regard. For instance, we are close to issuing tenders on some school routes as they go to and from villages and towns all over the country serving schools and the buses come back, and head out on the reverse routes, empty. That is an issue that should have been addressed many years ago and it is being addressed. For many years, the HSE has been spending quite a quantity of funding on non-acute transport, particularly taxis, and we have a working groups looking at that issue.

All of this is aligned with work with local authorities to ensure that there is consistency in approach. For example, there is no point in 15-seat minibuses trying to serve areas where there is not joined-up thinking with the local authorities as regards making provision for those buses to be able to go in those areas. There are also many other areas with which the local authorities can help.

Lining up all of those areas together, not alone can we negate the fact that due to the economic circumstances there is not as much funding available, but we can free up and create more services for rural Ireland. We can also align them with national transport services. For instance, the national journey planner, which is being launched, includes all of the RTP services so that if persons are using national services with Bus Éireann or private bus companies, they can also connect up with RTP services. All of this helps to enhance the services in rural Ireland.

I can assure Senator Daly that he will not get somebody who is dug into this as much as I am. I am hopeful that in the future we will be able to develop more comprehensive services as a result of the approach that I am trying to bring about.