Funding for “lifeline” rural transport services has been extended until the end of June following public pressure on the Department for Infrastructure.
The funding for the services, which provide transport to elderly and disabled passengers in rural areas, was due to run out at the end of April.
A spokesperson for the DfI said that the funding commitment for April had been made based on the expectation that a budget for 2023/2024 would have been confirmed by March 31. This has not been the case.
Due to the “continuing uncertainty arising from the absence of a budget allocation”, funding for community transport providers has been extended until June 30.
The spokesperson told Armagh I : “The Department recognises the important contribution community transport makes, complementing the wider public transport network, helping connect communities and ensuring that some of the most vulnerable people in our society are able to access essential local services and more actively participate in society.
“The Department also understands the impact it would have on the workforce and users if funding for this scheme was to stop. Although budgets have not been confirmed for 2023-24, the financial outlook is likely to be very challenging and require extremely difficult decisions.”
They added: “It is expected that funding decisions for the remainder of the year will be subject to the budget provided to DfI for 2023/24, when that is confirmed.”
Dial-a-lift community transport services help vulnerable people in rural communities access GP appointments and shops.
There are 11 providers of dial-a-lift services in Northern Ireland, with the groups supported nationally by the Community Transport Association (CTA), and operating locally through Rural Community Transport Partnerships.
Diane Irwin, the manager of Armagh Rural Transport (ART), said that she was “absolutely delighted” to hear the news.
Set up in 2000, ART covers the area surrounding Armagh city, including Loughgall, Markethill and Tandragee.
ART was informed by the department last Thursday that funding was to be extended, with Diane saying that the announcement has been a “long time coming”.
“It gives us a wee bit of security while the government get their budgets worked out,” Diane said. “It leaves us then that we can still provide the transport to the members. They are absolutely thrilled that the transport is going to continue.
“It gives us a bit of breathing room and gives the members that bit of security. Also for the staff as well, it’s reassurance for them that things are looking a bit brighter.”
However, Diane concedes that there is still uncertainty, with the service still in doubt over funding after June has come to an end.
Despite this, she believes that the Dfi have started to take the rural transport services more seriously, following the “immense pressure” that was placed on the department after it was announced that funding for the services may be at risk.
She said: “I think the combined effort of everybody together really had an impact on the department and made them realise just how valuable the service is. One lady said to me that she was so thrilled.
“I would definitely be more hopeful than I was a week ago. Before we got the word I was beginning to lose hope. This extension has really given us a boost.
“I just feel that the power of the people has spoken and they’ve listened. I feel a lot more positive.”
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