Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Cuts to Rural Transport will have “devastating effect”

Cuts in funding amounting to a third of its overall budget has forced a rural community transport provider to axe its free service for the elderly and disabled, prompting anger and concern among those who rely on the facility, The Examiner has learned.

Patrons at the weekly luncheon club based in Crossmaglen Community Centre learned on Wednesday that the bus service, which collects them from their homes and transports them to and from the club each week, will cease with immediate effect.

Community Transport Newry and Mourne operates the service under the Department of Regional Development’s Rural Transport budget.  However, as a result of cuts in the departmental budget, £38,000 has been withdrawn from the scheme’s overall funding, forcing it to drastically reduce the service it provides.

Local politicians have described the move as “devastating”, calling it “an astonishing attack on the most vulnerable”.

Pensioners who have availed of the service weekly have expressed concern and anger, describing the service as a “lifeline”.

A spokesman for Community Transport Newry and Mourne confirmed that it had suffered a 33 per cent budget cut “across the board”, which in turn is affecting its service “right through from Crossmaglen to Annalong”.

The organisation now had to look at how the service could continue to be delivered, he said, and this would mean either “looking to the [Southern] Trust to pay for the service for Trust-related events such as Crossmaglen Luncheon Club or incurring a cost to users of the service.”

He advised that the service was still available for users to avail of on an “individual basis” – for which the user will incur a charge – and that areas across south Armagh and south Down were now facing the same issues with costs.

Commenting on the situation, a Southern Trust representative said the budget for Community Transport is not provided by the Trust and “we are unable to comment on reductions in their budget”.

“The costs of running community-based lunch clubs like the Social Centre in Crossmaglen is the responsibility of the Trust and the costs of rent, meals and staff support costs are currently met by the Trust.  Community Transport providers are available for use by individuals and groups within the Southern Trust area. A range of pricing structures is in operation and users are encouraged to contact their local provider to obtain an accurate cost for their journey,” the spokesperson advised.

The SDLP’s Justin McNulty visited Crossmaglen on Wednesday where he met with some of those affected by the cuts.  He hit out at the DRD decision to withdraw funds from the vital transport scheme, calling it “an astonishing attack on the most vulnerable and isolated in our community” and claimed it is “ironic” that users will be able to access it on a one-to-one basis but not to attend the Luncheon Club, as it is coordinated by the Southern Trust.

“The Southern Trust runs the Luncheon Club but makes no provision or no contribution to the transport service. This needs to change,” he said.

He branded the 33 per cent budget cut as “terrible” and said affected groups “were very angry that their service is under threat”.

Councillor Geraldine Donnelly added that the Community Transport service “is the only means they [the elderly and disabled] have of getting out of their homes and it needs to be protected and enhanced.”

Sinn Fein Councillor Terry Hearty said the loss of the service would have a “devastating effect” on those living in rural and isolated areas.

“For some of the less able people that attend the Social Centre on Wednesdays and Fridays, this can be the only time of the week they get out of their homes.  The centre, which is run by the Trust, provides them with a warm dinner or lunch, which is something they may not get every day of the week, and just as important is the social aspect of the centre,” he said.

Mr Hearty added that, for many, the community vehicle is their only means of transport due to its specially fitted disabled access, adding that users were “hurt that the quality of their lives mean so little to the Department and terrified at the prospect of long lonely days with nothing to look forward to”.

Criticising the DRD for implementing the cuts, he added: “Danny Kennedy and his department talk of improving rural services but once again all we see in south Armagh is cuts and attacks on the vulnerable.”

Mr Hearty said the Southern Trust to step in and fund the scheme “in the mean time” and slammed suggestions that users could begin to pay for the service themselves, at a cost of around £20 per week.

He challenged those behind the cuts “to try and live on one of the meagre pensions many of these people have to live on to see the effect the loss of another £20 would have”.

Councillor Hearty’s party colleague Newry and Armagh MLA Mickey Brady said a meeting had been organised with Rural Transport and he is assuring the elderly people affected by the transport cuts that his party would do “all in our power to reverse this decision”.

Meanwhile the Department of Regional development has suggested the Rural Community Transport service could be run more efficiently.

“The Department recognises that the grant for this year has been reduced but believes Rural Community Transport can operate more effectively to protect services on the ground. Relative priorities for services is a matter for the individual organization,” a spokesperson said.