OLDER people in rural areas should be given their own transport allowance instead of a free bus pass in an effort to reduce the growing problem of isolation in the countryside, the Government’s advisory panel on rural affairs has said.
SThe Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) wants Ministers to “investigate the merits” of handing the money currently being spent on providing free bus travel for pensioners directly to elderly people in rural areas, where bus services are often infrequent or completely non-existent.
The money could potentially be spent on private transport, taxis or given to friends and family to pay for them to visit isolated people in their own homes.
The CRC’s report on rural isolation highlights the lack of public transport as a huge issue in rural areas, particularly when coupled with the soaring price of fuel and the closure of many local facilities such as village shops, post offices, pubs and libraries.
The commission calls on Ministers to work harder to “rural-proof” their policies, to ensure they work as well for the countryside as they do in urban areas.
Free bus passes, for example, are of little use to elderly people in areas so remote there are few bus services for them to use.
The report states: “The availability of transport is vital to rural areas... Those older people without access to their own transport have greater chances of experiencing social isolation in rural areas than urban.”
The study warns that the subsidies councils offer to bus companies to run rural services are being stripped back owing to the public sending squeeze. Those services deemed uneconomical are consequently disappearing for good.
“We are concerned the removal of subsidies to scheduled bus services is having a disproportionate impact on rural communities,” the commission concludes.
“Further reductions in rural bus services are occurring in 2012/13.
“For older people experiencing physical isolation from services, and social isolation from friends, family and community activities, the impact will be great.”
Rural charities in Yorkshire said the implications of poor transport links are bleak for isolated elderly people.
A report by the umbrella charity Involve Yorkshire and Humber stated: “In the absence of suitable means of transport, even the smallest distance can quickly become insurmountable.
“In some instances where public transport is scarce or non-existent, the inability to drive can leave those who do not have access to private transport exceedingly marginalised and isolated.
It concluded: “The lack of services and transport can compound ill health and financial hardship. In nearly all instances of hardship reported, isolation and the high cost of life in a rural area are making the issues worse.”
For most people in rural areas, the advent of the digital age will make life easier, as services that were formerly many miles away become accessible online.
But Involve warned that for many vulnerable elderly people, the problem will in fact be accentuated.
“With the cuts to Government and local authority budgets, vital services and benefits will move to on-line access,” the charity said.
“Many older people cannot afford or do not have access to broadband, which disadvantages them even further.”
The CRC’s suggested solution is to give elderly people in rural areas “transport budgets” to spend for themselves, rather than a free bus pass.
“We believe there could be merit in replacing the concessionary fare system with one by which older people have access to personal budgets for scheduled and community transport services,” the commission said.
However, it is not only the elderly who are affected by the issue of rural isolation – the people who care for them can also suffer the same effects.
Scarborough and Ryedale Carers’ Association warned it is finding that the carers of partners with conditions such as dementia “are feeling isolated, and sometimes desperate”.
“We try to provide support for them, but this is getting increasingly difficult,” the support group said.