The Government is drawing up plans to scrap the rural transport network and replace it with a scheme under the control of county councils.
A leaked draft report from the Department of Transport, seen by the Irish Examiner, recommends:
- The 35 community-based companies that run the network be abolished;
- Eight regional authorities to oversee the new regime, under the National Transport Authority;
- Individual local authorities will be responsible for schemes in their area.
The network employs 108 people at present, but under the plan, just 32 jobs will be maintained. Most of the other employees may be subsumed into the councils.
The proposal also sets out a redundancy scheme for any employees who cannot be retained.
Fears are growing that the plan will lead to a diminution of services as the system will remove the community element in organising and delivering transport to the most isolated areas.
A survey undertaken last year found 56% of users are over 65, while two thirds are women. For some in rural Ireland, the system is the only connection with the world outside their home.
Seamus Boland, chief executive of Irish Rural Link, said that if the proposal went ahead as outlined, it could undo the work done over the past 10 years.
“If that is how it goes, it would reduce the ability and the flexibility of the rural transport programme and take it to a place where it is no longer relevant.
“Providing this kind of transport is something that hasn’t been solved since the foundation of the State until the RTP introduced flexibility at the local level, which was making it work.
“What is being proposed would take it out of the reach of local communities. If it’s out of touch and out of reach, then the evolution of a proper service will stop,” said Mr Boland.
The network was set up in 2002 under an initiative to tackle social isolation and is seen as a major success.
Currently, a large element of the service, including the make-up of company boards, is provided by volunteers. Last year, 1.7m journeys were undertaken by the network, on government funding of €9.7m.
The 35 companies have yet to be officially informed of the draft proposal, but last week, all simultaneously received a copy of the document, posted anonymously.
One manager of a midlands company told the Irish Examiner of widespread concern for the future of the service as it currently exists.
“I’d be very worried about the new plan, as it takes out the voluntary element and the whole community spirit.”
The restructuring of rural transport has come following a value-for-money study that found administration costs were too high, at 15%-17% of funding, slightly above the target of 13%.
A spokesman for junior transport minister Alan Kelly said the proposal was in draft form and there would not be any diminution of services.
“What we’re trying to do is the exact opposite. Right now, administration costs are high in relation to service. A new structure would allow for more money to go into services and we would have more services at a local level. That’s the ambition of our reform.”
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