Campaign group Community First has called on residents to lobby Hampshire County Council to preserve £800,000 funding for vulnerable transport services across the county.
Thousands of vulnerable passengers in East Hampshire, Havant, Fareham, Gosport, the New Forest, Winchester, and Basingstoke could be left without community transport if the county council approves the 2024-2026 budget consultation proposal, the group warns.
As part of the strategy to try to balance the next year’s budget, with all the pressure on social care and children’s services and the £132 million predicted budget gap by 2025/26, Hampshire County Council held a budget consultation during the summer to gather members of the public’s opinion on how to balance the books.
Some potential options that could “contribute” towards balancing the budget include reducing or changing services in all statutory service areas.
The proposal will affect non-statutory local bus and Community Transport services with the county council estimating that it could save £1.7 million. At the moment, the local authority is expending £2.7 million per year supporting non-commercial bus services and community transport provision.
Approximately £800,000 of this funding is delivered to Community Transport services like Dial-a-Ride and Call and Go, run by Community First charity. The entire funding could be withdrawn, leaving vulnerable groups of people dependent on public or community transport without an alternative for being connected to their families or simply going grocery shopping.
Community First, which operates in seven of the eleven Hampshire’s districts on its ‘Connect’ Dial A Ride and Call & Go services together with semi-scheduled routes serving rural and isolated communities and where public transport is practically non-existent, said that the proposed withdrawal of all funding for community transport services in Havant, Fareham and Gosport, will leave people isolated and, in some cases, unable to leave their homes.
Chief Executive of Community First, Tim Houghton, said: “The proposals are to reduce the funding from April 2025, and some first reductions could start in April 2024.
“We have several thousand users with us. We transport 85,000 passenger journeys each year. Some passengers use the service once a week, others more frequently. Community transport helps people who need help accessing public transport or where public transport isn’t available. It is brought particularly to older people, for people with disabilities. Still, the service is available for everybody because of their health needs, age, or lack of public transport availability.
“There are a number of services to take people to shops, town centres, to health appointments. We also run social trips to unite people to socialise and prevent isolation and loneliness.
“The cuts will impact some of the most vulnerable in our community, those with disabilities and long-term health conditions. If this is taken away, it will hit the hardest because this is a life aid service for them."
The service is door to door with someone to help users on and off the minibus and with their shopping. Connect Dial-a-Ride also runs regular day trips, including Community First’s Tea & Tiffin social club visits.
The proposed budget cuts for the services in Havant, Fareham, Gosport, East Hampshire, New Forest, Winchester, and Basingstoke have forced Community First to launch a “Save our Service” campaign to lobby the local councillors and MPs, highlighting the impact to try and ensure the cuts to transport services aren’t made.
Mr Houghton added: “Our call to action is not only to our customers, but it’s also for everyone, someone that maybe used the service one day or user’s family members, to contact their local county councillors and MPs to highlight the importance of the service and the impact that the proposed cuts would have for the community.
“We know that Hampshire County Council is in a very difficult position, but we have to push for at least some funding to remain to continue the service.”
For its part, a spokesperson for Hampshire County Council said: “For a long time now, we’ve been very clear about the huge budget pressures facing the County Council by April 2025, and like many local authorities nationally, our budgets are stretched to breaking point. This is down to high inflation, years of underfunding from the central Government and growing demand for local services in areas like social care for vulnerable children and adults where more and more people need help and support.
“We predict a £132m budget shortfall by April 2025, and the County Council’s Cabinet Members and full County Council will be carefully considering a range of options over the coming weeks to help towards closing this funding gap, but regrettably, this may mean some very tough decisions are needed on what the Authority can and cannot continue to do in future.”