There's a break point in any operator's relationship with a minibus; at some point, the cost of maintenance outstrips the cost of running something new and reliable. Long before then, though, drivers have become a bit fed up with crashing through the gearbox, the users are fed up with being told a trip will be late or even cancelled, and the image of your operation is being tarnished with a tatty vehicle.
So when one of Age UK Mid Hampshire's office staff spotted a Government offer of free minibuses when the Community Minibus Fund was announced in 2015, it looked as if their prayers had been answered and they could, at last, say goodbye to the faithful but faltering Renault which had been used for Age UK Mid Hants' Winchester Lunch Club scheme.
“To be honest, we couldn't believe it,” said John Edwards, a stalwart volunteer driver for the Lunch Club operation for 11 years. “We thought, 'there must be a catch !'”
So this one-vehicle operator quickly got a bid into the Department for Transport and to their surprise were successful. Then began the careful process of specifying what they wanted: “We'd bought the Renault Master when our ageing Boxer was about to expire; the sliding door fell off one day ! We'd raised money over the year, including a very generous donation from the local undertakers, Richard Steel & Partners, and eventually went to Minibus Options in Whaley Bridge, where they had a second-hand Master with low mileage.”
The bus cost £30,000 and the result was many trouble-free years running elderly folk in and around Winchester to lunch clubs as well as providing transport for monthly outings for elderly residents in Owslebury village.
Age UK Mid Hampshire's Lunch Club has a history going back almost 30 years, and a number of previous names including Age UK Winchester. Members pay towards the cost of lunches and transport but like many small charities, it depends entirely on grants and donations as its services are supplied at a loss, using volunteer drivers and staff.
It gets small grants from the city and county councils but depends for the rest on donors. The ideas of getting all the funding for a new minibus was beyond their imagining, but came at precisely the right time for them.
“Our experience of buying the Renault Master ensured we went back to Minibus Options but they were, of course, managing the orders for the Fund,” said John. “In fact, when we found out Minibus Options were running the show, we were highly chuffed.”
So, in mid-April of 2016, Age UK Mid Hampshire was ordering their vehicle, with the aid of a visit to the Whaley Bridge showroom and some sound advice from Fred James and the team at Minibus Options.
“We asked for everything; a tail lift, reversing camera, hands-free Bluetooth phone system, racking, restraint storage box and a fold-out step with folding handrails. Minibus Options told us they'd deliver the vehicle before the end of the year and on 8th December 2016, we went up to Whaley Bridge for the vehicle handover. We were genuinely overwhelmed when we saw our vehicle; it was just fantastic, beyond our wildest dreams. Minibus Options gave us a very comprehensive operator briefing to explain all the systems before we drove it back.”
It's a Peugeot Boxer-based 11-seat minibus with a tail lift and tracking for wheelchair clamps. The group has gone for a manual gearbox which, coupled with the 2-litre turbo engine, gives it car-like performance, says John.
All of the group's volunteer drivers are trained to Minibus Drivers' Awareness Scheme (MiDAS) standard.
The principle job of the vehicle is collecting members of the Winchester Lunch Clubs and taking them to community venues – hired at low cost – to enjoy hot food which is delivered by a local contractor..
The Lunch Clubs run Monday to Thursday and are very popular, but of course there is some scope for the vehicle to be hired by other community groups in the area, for which Age UK Mid Hampshire makes a mileage charge.
The new minibus, through its complete funding by the Community Minibus Fund, has freed up resources at the Age UK Lunch Club scheme, especially as there are no nasty and unexpected bills in the pipeline for quite some time. Nonetheless, paying the bills is – as at so many CTOs – a constant battle.
The members pay £4 for each lunch club plus a £3 contribution towards minibus costs;
the generous and continued support of the scheme by Richard Steel and Partners is a massive help which, together with grants from both city and county councils and donors help underpin the finances. “But we are running at a loss and are now actively looking for other funding streams. Age UK Mid Hants has appointed someone to help us find more ways to raise money, reduce costs and be more efficient.” says John
Age UK Mid Hants needs more minibus drivers in the Winchester area, and has appealed to local people who can spare a day or more to drive the minibus
John also drives for other lunch club schemes in Winchester which take members to local pubs, garden centres and other restaurant facilities, and says they are on the radar of the
Government community transport grant scheme as it develops other options.
One thing's for sure: the members no longer have to tolerate travelling in a vehicle with doors which could fall off! The smart, Royal Blue Age UK minibus is already proving to be a familiar and welcome sight to the people of Winchester.