“The original service was established in 1992, and when I got here in 1998, it borrowed some unreliable vehicles. Their situation was very precarious,” she tells Which Minibus. Since then, the fleet and the service it provides has positively burgeoned, so that it now has a fleet of eight accessible minibuses and a busy dial-a-ride service.
Norwich is a glorious city jewel in a rural county, with significant access problems to healthcare for a great many people living in its periphery. Norwich D2D doesn’t restrict itself to shuttling customers around the city but serves Greater Norwich – a huge area stretching to Harleston in the south, Aylsham in the north, into the Broads in the east and west beyond Wymondham.
“The boundaries seem to be ever wider – it’s a huge expanse of territory,” says Gill. “There is a lot of new housing being built and the number of people needing our services is going to increase, particularly with an ageing population.”
By the time Jill joined Norwich D2D, she’d already had a long career in British Rail, managing sales of parcel services and freight until the department was privatised. At the end, she had accrued a number of friends with disabilities and had an understanding of the challenges disadvantaged people face.
On joining Norwich D2D, she could immediately see it needing stronger underpinnings if it was to survive and be fit for purpose: “We were then based in the Vauxhall Centre, which houses many services for people with severe disabilities. People could get to Vauxhall Centre with Social Services but they couldn’t go anywhere else.
“Roger Hadley of Taverham Lions helped us to get a charity foundation. We got some National Lottery funding which allowed us to employ some staff and two part-time drivers,” says Jill.
“Back then we tended to get a little money from a lot of sources,” she says. Then as now, money can come from surprising sources: “We were Charity of the Year for the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale, CAMRA, for example. We are fund-raising all the time, and getting support from other local groups, who raise funds for us.”
Communication is key, says Jill. Aside from issuing a bi-monthly newsletter and keeping in touch with supporters and customers through local media, Norwich D2D has formed affiliations with many other charity groups: “Then there are Lord and Lady Walpole, who kindly open their stately home and gardens and Norwich D2D benefits from the gate money.” Mannington Hall, their moated, 15th-century manor house, becomes, in effect, Norwich D2D’s for the day…
The income figures say it all. Norwich D2D gets 27% of its money from grant aid, 21% from fares and 26% from fundraising plus money from rebates and interest from its reserves. It spends its money in various ways, but every year, it raises £35,000 or so and buys a new vehicle. Most recently, those vehicles have been sourced from Minibus Options.
“The reason we went to Minibus Options was very simple; they’re very knowledgeable. They know every shift in legislation and assist me so I don’t have to do that research; they even send us bulletins to update us. That whole business of specifying the right piece of equipment is solved when you’re in their hands.”
Jill says the fleet used to have underfloor wheelchair lifts but they proved unreliable, so they changed to inboard lifts. Likewise, they have standardised on sliding CT Space seats from Rescroft in the wheelchair positions, which avoids the need for storing seats out of the vehicle: “They were always getting damaged and we ended up sewing them up,” says Jill.
“All our fleet are Renaults apart from a Fiat Doblo, and five of those are Minibus Options Renault Master conversions.”
The vehicles are maintained locally under contract, while a local firm, Cleaning Doctor, regularly sanitises the floors.
The vehicles provide a range of services. A structured service is bookable on the DAR principle, users pre-registering and booking their journey 48 hours in advance, but Norwich D2D also provides shopping trips and tourism visits, lunch club trips plus care centre transport. Norwich D2D has also pitched for Special Needs contracts, and has six.
The CT is, like so many, almost entirely dependent on volunteer drivers for its reach into the community. Apart from 15 part-time staff, the majority of the 90 names on the roll-call are volunteers, and Norwich D2D is constantly appealing to recruit more. It’s not getting any easier.
Keeping the GVW of the vehicles at the right weight helps avoid the D1 licensing problem, but only in the short term: “D1 licensing is a big issue for us,” said Jill. “At the moment we are surviving.”
Jill says PCV O licensing is already under consideration, as is Section 22 stage carriage licensing: “I believe everything is going to change. The person who takes over from me is a CPC holder and knows the territory. We will also get a transport manager, I think. Some CTs are already doing this.”
Jill is, though, certain that the work of Norwich D2D will continue because of the need and the motivation of volunteers: “We’re a social network on wheels,” she says. “For so many people, life can suddenly change, and those people rely on us for so much. They get this help because our volunteers come to us to provide so much more than just driving.
“I’m sitting here wondering where the cuts will come and, if they cut our grants, how we will find other funding,” says Jill. “We used to be able to raise money in interest on our reserves but with interest rates so low, you have to keep sharpening your pencil.”
Jill, who will stand down but become a trustee, says the future could be bright, but that will come down to weathering the austerity cuts while at the same time shouting the good work of the CT from the rooftops.
“We need to yell about what we do, or people won’t notice you are doing it – we want people to understand the social value of what we do and get local businesses to contribute their time to help us.”