WEST BERKSHIRE DISABILITY ALLIANCE

Improving the lives of disabled people

President--- Lady Howard de Walden

Registered Charity No: 1108112

Supported by Greenham Common Trust

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West Berkshire Disability Aliance

 

Policy & Development Plan – 2nd Draft



November 2005




'Transport provision for disabled people in West Berkshire'





Introduction

The West Berkshire Disability Alliance (WBDA) has identified Transport as one of the 5 key areas it wishes to address.

To that end, the WBDA has undertook a survey of the local rail network and together with other interested parties, another survey regards transport provision to the new West Berkshire Community Hospital. In October 2004, it also hosted a 'question time style' Transport Forum for disabled and older people.

The WBDA has a seat on the Transport Action Group (part of the West Berkshire Partnership) and an ongoing roll in researching the needs of the local disabled community regarding access to taxis and advising West Berkshire Council's Licensing Committee on this issue.

From this work the WBDA has produced a Policy and Development Plan entitled 'Transport provision for disabled people in West Berkshire'.

This document is intended to be a living piece of work and will therefore be up dated if and when necessary. It will form the basis of all the WBDA's lobbying, discussion and negotiation regards Transport and is expected to help lay some of the foundations for the 'Social Exclusion' section of
the Local Transport Plan 2, the first draft of which is due to published in July 2005.

The document gives a detailed breakdown of the transport available for disabled people in West Berkshire, before providing a summery.

The areas of transport covered are as follows.

* Buses
* Trains
* Taxis
* Community Transport
* Private Vehicles
* Travel Tokens & Bus Passes

This is the second draft of the plan – updated 01/10/2005.



Buses

The bus services in West Berkshire appear to be in decline, as operating costs rise and the proportion of journeys that can be operated commercially fall. Of the 301 people surveyed at the new local hospital only 15 actually used a bus! Anybody only has to stand in Newbury Town centre and watch bus after bus go by empty or half empty. People in West Berkshire it seems, bar a small minority, do not even consider taking the bus.

Although in the east of the district there are a significant number of bus services to Reading that are commercially viable (from Purley, Tilehurst, Calcot, Fords Farm, Burghfield, Mortimer and Tadley), the only bus routes in the west of the district that are viable are those between Newbury & Thatcham, Newbury & Reading (via A4), and Newbury & Basingstoke (approx. 40% of all services leaving Newbury Bus Station) – all other routes are subsidised to varying amounts by West Berkshire Council (WBC).

For people living in the more rural areas using the bus for work, to access the local hospital, to shop in the larger towns, or to socialise, is simply not an option, as the services are often limited
to once a day, irregular, unreliable and in many areas there are no services at all.

For disabled people in West Berkshire, especially those with ambulatory problems and wheelchair users, there are not enough low rider buses and only a scattering of bus platforms/kerbs to enable access to them. To compound the problem the bus companies have until 2012 to introduce low riders.

The aim of Reading buses is to have there Reading based fleet low rider by 2007 and those in Newbury by 2010, but this will be of little use if there is no platform/kerb at a bus stop.

NB. At present 36 (or 56%) of the Newbury fleet are low rider.

WBC it seems, have no strategic plan to introduce more bus border platforms, only dotting them about when an area containing a bus stop is redeveloped.

NB – There has been some 'dial-a-ride' services started in the rural areas, but the WBDA is unsure of their accessibility, availability, etc.

One plus is that all staff undergo Disability Awareness Training and the regulations pertaining to newer vehicles require the driver to leave the cab to give assistance to wheelchair bound
customers.

WBDA Opinion

The bus services in West Berkshire are seemingly in terminal decline and access to buses is extremely difficult for those with ambulatory problems and near impossible for wheelchair users
(not to mention young mothers with buggies), which makes a mockery of the slogan 'Low Rider Easy Access for All' daubed along their sides.

It is debatable how much energy the WBDA should spend on trying to push for a more accessible bus service in West Berkshire, as it seems that the service does not work for able bodied people.

However, a case could be made out to develop the route between Newbury & Thatcham into a fully accessible 'premier' service, with proper provision for all disabled people.

The WBDA should push for such a route to run from Newbury College & Newbury Retail Park to Thatcham Railway Station, with stops at Newbury Railway Station, Newbury Town Centre (South, Central & North), Shaw/St Marys A4, Turnpike/Newbury Business Park A4, West Berkshire Community Hospital, Thatcham West A4, Thatcham Health Centre & Thatcham Broadway.

This route could then link in with dial-a-rides, voluntary and statutory sector provision, the rail network and a roll out of further 'premier' routes from Newbury to Reading, Newbury to Basingstoke, Newbury to Oxford and Newbury to Swindon (via Hungerford).

Trains

West Berkshire is served with an excellent rail service which runs the full length of the District's southern border running parallel to the A4, with stations at Hungerford, Kintbury, Newbury, Thatcham, Woolhampton, Aldermaston and Theale. To the east, all local trains run to Reading, from where a traveller can get to almost anywhere in mainland Britain, including Heathrow (by coach link) and Gatwick airports, while Newbury is the point of access to the main line service between London and the West Country.

The WBDA in June 2004 undertook a rail audit in partnership with the WBC Access Team and the West Berkshire TAG, by taking a task group of various disabilities on a return trip from Kintbury & Newbury via Reading to Oxford - the full report of which can be found on the WBDA website www.wbda.org

For many disabled people, especially those with severe sight and ambulant impairments, and wheelchair users, 24 hours notice of travel is required to ensure the required support from rail staff.

The downside of this is that it limits spontaneity of travel, but it is hard to see how it could be changed when staff have to be organised to provide ramps and assistance (especially at the smaller stations). One upside is that a disabled person and their carer are at least guaranteed a seat/place on the 125/inter city services.

Many stations are unmanned or inaccessible either one or both sides of the track and the trains themselves often have no designated places for wheelchair users, making the journey very uncomfortable and hazardous.

The WBDA has identified several areas for improvement at the stations and on First Great Western 'Sprinter' trains encountered on the audit. For instance, in one area of the Sprinter train it should be quite easy to take out a section of 4 seats to give 2 wheelchair users a comfortable and relatively safe area to position themselves.

Here though lies a problem, as the rail operators are reluctant to lose any seats from a train (even 4!) and can hide behind legislation like the bus operators, which makes no requirement to make rolling stock accessible in the foreseeable future unless it is replaced by new.

Some of the WBDA's recommendations are fairly inexpensive and easy to implement, like better parking provision at stations for Blue Badge holders, induction loops on all ticket offices, better seating for those with ambulant problems and better markings and indicators on stairways, for those with a sight impairment. Others, such as tactile paving to define the safety line away from platform edges will need quite a large work programme, and with it a cost implication.

At Newbury station, if someone parks their car and travels east to London, and can not use the footbridge because of their disability, on their return they have at least an estimated 600 meter
walk/push up and over the A339 road bridge to get to their vehicle. This problem is obviously reversed going west.

The franchises for the services from Paddington to West Berkshire and beyond are currently up for tender and the winners will be known around late December 2005. The new franchises will run from 01/01/2006 and there will be money made available to make services and stations more accessible for disabled people.

A crucial factor of the 'Vision for Newbury' 25 year plan, is the redevelopment of Market Street, which will make the station one of the main 'gateways' serving the town, with shops, restaurants and bars lining a new thoroughfare from the north station entrance to the town.

The WBDA should use the above two items to press for lift access to the footbridge, so people with disabilities can cross the railway without a 600 meter or more walk or push.

WBDA opinion

Unlike the bus services, the rail network can currently be accessed by even those with a severe impairment, albeit with varying degrees of difficulty. The rail service is also more consistent and
gives the potential of long distance travel.

The WBDA needs to undertake further surveys of the stations that serve West Berkshire, including Reading and Paddington, and campaign for its recommendations to be implemented. To this
end, a dialogue has been started with Mike Crane, Franchise Development Manager for First Great Western Link.

The provision of a lift to access the footbridge at Newbury station should be pushed by the WBDA at every opportunity.

Taxis

NB - A Taxi means a licensed hackney carriage (not a private hire vehicle). It is important to note that when discussing taxis in this context, the term relates to the licence or plate, not a specific vehicle. Hence as an old vehicle wears out, its plate can be transferred to a newer vehicle. The old vehicle is no longer a taxi and the new vehicle becomes a taxi with all the legal benefits and restrictions that brings.

After getting itself in a mess regarding taxi provision for disabled people (see details in first draft of WBDA Transport Policy), WBC asked the WBDA to gather opinions from the local disabled
community.

The WBDA did this via a survey over December 2004 and January 2005 (see www.wbda.org for details) and presented the results and its recommendations to the WBC Licensing Committee Task
Force set up to resolve.

The Task Force took on board the WBDA recommendations and from 01/04/2005 all new licence holders will need to provide a fully wheelchair accessible vehicle and under take a course of
Disability Awareness Training.


This should now see a year on year increase in the ratio of wheelchair accessible vehicles in the West Berkshire taxi fleet, as well as better driver awareness.

The detail of this (i.e. actual vehicle spec & type of course/provider for training) was to be a further piece of work. Unfortunately, because of the change of control in WBC and pressure on the licensing committee through the summer of 2005 due to the change in the law for pubs, clubs etc, this work was neglected.

WBDA Opinion

The WBDA needs to press WBC licensing committee to 'put some flesh on the bones' regards the new policy and find a provider of good quality awareness training (the Ormonde Resource Centre could well fit this bill).

The WBDA also needs to monitor the numbers of wheelchair accessible taxis and help promote those providers who undertake good practice regards disability to the disabled community.

Community Transport

There are many agencies and organisations providing this form of transport in West Berkshire including Volunteer Centres, Handybuses, and various voluntary care schemes. WBC also have a fleet of vehicles set aside for community transport attached to day centres, schools, care homes etc. There is also a limited Readibus service, which is a fully accessible door to door service with a pre-booking requirement, whose drivers are also trained carers.

Probably the best source of information regarding accessing community transport is a booklet produced by WBC called 'Getting There'.

There is a need however to form a data base of the community transport in West Berkshire, to enable organisations, groups and individuals, easy access to information about availability, booking requirements and vehicle specification. To this end Garry Poulson from the West Berkshire Volunteer Centre has approached the Transport Action Group for funding and support to undertake this work and the WBDA fully supports this initiative.

The advantage of Community Transport is that is relatively inexpensive to use and has a high level of wheelchair accessible vehicles and disability awareness amongst the drivers.

The disadvantage is that it almost always needs to be booked at least the day before, cannot be accessed on certain days or times (especially late evenings) and apart from the voluntary care schemes it is mainly aimed at group activities, not individual requirements.

WBDA Opinion

This form of transport (with paid drivers), working alongside Voluntary Transport, probably offers the best solution for disabled people, or those deemed socially excluded because they are unable to access conventional transport forms for one reason or another and therefore are unable to get out and about. (Although this will never be perfect, as a certain amount of planning/booking will always be required).

These transport options at least are able to offer an affordable service (because they are non-profit making), as well as providing accessible vehicles and well trained staff, with regards to disability etc. There does however need to be some correlation between the two services to stop duplication and provide a better overall cover of the district, and where possible it needs to link into public/private transport, such as bus and rail.

Readibus is by far the biggest operator of this type of service, although as stated, it primarily operates in the east of the area, out of Reading. It currently has two buses based in Newbury, but this clearly has to expand to meet local need, which will mean, more buses, drivers, staff and infrastructure, such as an office and depot.

There is here a big opportunity here for statutory and private bodies to contract into such a service, which in turn could provide funding to help subsidise individual/spontaneous travel, as well as
expansion.

E.G. Falkland Surgery contracts Readibus to collect/return their patients to the surgery on certain days and books appointments to fit in with the schedule – so why couldn't West Berkshire Community Hospital do it on a larger scale for its outpatients?

Although this form of transport has its drawbacks, it is an area that should be developed, especially in the more rural areas where local communities could be empowered to provide the type of transport arrangements best suited to them. More funds therefore need to be made available for purchasing vehicles, running costs and where necessary paying wages to drivers.

The database of available community transport should be completed with urgency. This should be followed by a careful comparison against the ideal model (although the ideal model needs to be developed first). Then a transition plan should be implemented (or argued for).

One part of the solution could be an expansion of the Readibus service in West Berkshire - if more funds where made available. The WBDA should take a lead in lobbying for the further development of this service.

Private Vehicles

Many disabled people in West Berkshire (like their fellow able bodied citizens) have given up completely on any form of transport other than their own car or van. This is because of a variety of reasons, including accessibility, reliability, independence and convenience.

For many disabled people with a severe impairment a vehicle that has been specially adapted to meet their needs is the only option. These adaptations are often expensive and for some people the Government backed leasing scheme, 'Motability' is their only option.

This scheme discriminates against those with the severest impairments, as the 'Mobility Allowance' they receive does not cover the monthly payments and often a down payment of several thousand pounds is required. There is a grant available to cover this extra cost, but this was suspended for a time.

Anyone with a disability deemed severe enough can apply for a 'Blue Badge' which entitles them to free parking in WBC controlled car parks and to use disable parking spaces for Blue Badge holders only. There is a need to undertake a survey in West Berkshire to determine if there is enough provision of these parking spaces.

A loss of on street parking also provides a problem for disabled people, as does the lack of dropped curbs near to designated parking bays, while traffic humps and bad roads provide a potential health risk and are likely damage to vehicles in the long run (especially adapted cars and vans with lowered floors for wheelchair access).

It must also be recognised that most disabled people will be unable to do simple service and maintenance tasks on their vehicle, or wash, clean and valet it. In such cases there is often no choice but to pay somebody to do these things for them, which adds another financial burden.

WBDA Opinion

The WBDA recognises that many disabled people are either on low incomes or reliant on benefits and the ownership of their own vehicle, especially adapted ones, often means an extra financial
burden - while for many others, it is simply, an impossible dream.

The WBDA also recognises the concession given to Blue Badge holders by WBC and other Local Authorities – this is a concession that reflects the special needs of Blue Badge holders and must remain at all costs!

The WBDA needs to monitor the introduction of 'pay on exit' car parks, something that could pose a problem for disable people. It must also monitor the reduction of on street parking and the provision of dropped curbs in parking areas.

The WBDA also needs to monitor carefully the provision of car parking during the big redevelopment programmes being carried out under the Vision for Newbury plan and make sure future provision meets need.

One thing that frustrates disabled drivers and disabled passengers is non badge holders parking in Spaces reserved for 'Blue Badge holders only'. The WBDA needs to undertake some research in this area and if necessary lobby for more stringent policing of these spaces.

Travel Tokens & Bus Passes

WBC either issues a set amount of travel tokens to disabled people in West Berkshire (the amount depends on where you live, or if you require a companion to travel with you), or a half price bus pass. The tokens can be used to pay for Bus and Train journeys, Taxis, or Community transport such as the Handybus, Readibus and volunteer drivers.

In 2004 WBC cut the allocations of Travel Tokens because of budget shortfalls. There is a review taking place to try and find a fairer way to issue tokens, but there is a Government requirement to issue a half price bus pass (or the choice of tokens) to everyone aged 60 or over, which according to WBC members and officers hinders their attempts to make best provision for those most at need.

Currently there are 22,000 people entitled to take up the option of either a bus pass or tokens (around 10% opt for a bus pass). Most people in 2004 were allocated an average of around 30 worth of travel tokens.

WBDA Opinion

To most people with a disability a bus pass is not an option, as they can only access taxis or Community Transport. It is nonsensical, that people still in full time employment are entitled to a bus pass or tokens. This crazy system means that those who really need tokens only receive a derisory amount.

The WBDA must campaign for a fairer system, with the value of one return taxi journey to the nearest town per month, per entitlement (or a minimum of 8 per month, per entitlement, if the recipient lives in or near a town) as a starting point for negotiation.

Blue Badge holders, if they so wished, should be able to opt out from taking their allocation of Travel Tokens or a bus pass and instead claim a reduction on their Council Tax bill to the equivalent of their token allocation, over and above any other reductions they may receive.

This reduction would help off set some of the extra costs incurred by them and recognise that for most disabled people, public transport is simply not an option.


SUMMARY

It is clear that for many disabled people in West Berkshire, especially those with a severe impairment, accessing public transport is near impossible. Therefore, their only option is accessible taxis, community transport and their own private provision of a suitable vehicle. The WBDA therefore intends to undertake the following:

* Campaign for the development of 'premier' fully accessible bus routes, on routes which are robust.

* Recommend where possible that bus subsidies on routes that clearly do not provide a robust service are transferred to community transport and dial-a-ride providers and/or providing extra travel tokens.

* Monitor the new 'dial-a-ride' services as they develop and press for an expansion of the Readibus Service in the Newbury area

* A further audit of the rail facilities serving West Berkshire and lobby for recommendations from the previous audit to be implemented, including the provision of a lift for the footbridge at Newbury station

* Press WBC Licensing Committee to flesh out the policy introduced regards disabled access to taxis in 01/04/2005

* Seek an overarching plan for Community Transport and lobby for more funding to be made available for Community Transport initiatives.

* Investigate the progress of Garry Poulson's initiative to form a data base of the various types of Community Transport available in West Berkshire.

* Monitor the provision of free car parking for Blue Badge holders.

* Survey car parking spaces reserved for Blue Badge holders to determine if there is a proper provision of spaces and the extent of problem regarding non badge holders parking in them.

* Monitor Car Parking provision during new developments

* Lobby WBC for a fairer distribution of Travel Tokens.

* Lobby WBC to allow Blue Badge holders the choice to opt out of collecting a bus pass or their allocation of Travel Tokens, in favour of a reduction in their Council Tax.

* Lobby for recognition that as private vehicles, taxis and Community Transport will become more important, and buses less of an option in West Berkshire, the requirements relating to the provision of additional roads, improved roads to allow better traffic flow, and properly
planned car parking must be given serious attention and budgetary provision.