Shencare Community Transport in Birmingham is learning to do without grants and stand on its own two feet.
The compact operation lies right at the heart of its community, nestled among housing in Shenley Green and, perhaps appropriately, is on part of the Bournville estate… the 19th century Cadbury project which aimed to improve the lot of the chocolate factory’s workers.
Its roots are in the Shenley Green Community Centre, which began running a minibus service to bring in elderly people back to its day centre facility in 1986, when the man who would later become Lord Mayor of Birmingham, the late Ian McArdle, was at the heart of the project. It then morphed into Shencare Voluntary Transport Ltd.
At around this time, Chris Busst was a Transport Manager for Birmingham City Council, which also ran a fleet of wheelchair accessible minibuses. Periodically, they’d reach the end of their life and be sold at auctions, where they fetched a few hundred pounds. In 1987, Chris suggested to the council that they forgo the modest sums realised at auction and donate them to local community transport organisations.
The idea was embraced by the council. Chris, meanwhile, went on to become Head of Patient Transport Services with the West Midlands Ambulance Service. In 2007 Chris decided to take early retirement, or so he thought.
He got a call from Shencare to ask if he’d take over running the charity.
“It had no cash to speak of and was in desperate need of reorganising.” says Chris. “I took over in December 2007, and within two weeks had managed to get £47,000 funding from the council. Since then, we’ve gone from strength to strength, and from eight vehicles to 16.
“Our turnover has risen from £106,000 to £360,000, simply by bringing business principles to bear in the community transport environment. My experience of financial management helped bring some clarity.”
Buoying the Shencare finances up are schools contracts won at tender, and although Shencare has no direct grant aid, it does net development funding occasionally: “For example, the Be Birmingham Fund invited applicants. I had a 20-minute pitch to do, and ended up talking to the board for an hour and ten minutes.
“That netted us £30,000, which we have spent on more professional stationery, better computing resources and branding the fleet,” says Chris. “There are pockets of money to be sought, but we have been grant-free for two years. The austerity cutbacks affecting councils have hit us, just like everyone else.”
Shencare prides itself in professionalism. It has achieved its PQASSO Quality Mark for third-sector operation, which had become a necessity for joining the Birmingham City Council framework, although it operates for running costs alone, delivering services to Age UK, the Stroke Association and other national and local charities.
“We are very strong on partnership working, chiefly with community groups. For example, we might start a service for a partner at very low cost, building the service until the numbers rise, at which point we can begin to charge cost.”
Chris places himself at the heart of this, himself a MiDAS trainer: “I don’t just train our own staff, but we also provide this training on to other not for profit minibus operators, such as schools, churches and charities. It’s a three-day course which may include the accessible access training.”
The Main purpose of Shencare is its Community Transport work. In order to do this it requires funding and the core source of this is schools work, with transport supplied for special needs schools as far afield as Coventry: “But I like to think we are the local information hub for transport generally,” says Chris. “We can have calls asking for licensing advice, or from someone needing to reach a hospital or school. We try not to turn anyone away.”
As a Section 19 operator the community relies on us and if we did not have access to this income stream the effect on the local community of elderly and vulnerable people would be at great risk of social isolation.
Drivers on the school runs won at tender are waged, explains Chris. Currently, there are nine salaried drivers, and nine volunteers: “Some drivers are on zero-hours contracts, but for the simple reason that this is what suits them best. They come from all walks of life – ambulance drivers, bus drivers, but they are all retired, looking to put something back into the community.”
Of the 16 vehicles, 12 are wheelchair accessible, and three are minibuses. Latterly, the fleet has been boosted by two new minibuses – one a superb, accessible Mercedes-Benz Sprinter paid for by the Department for Transport Community Minibus Fund and the other a Ducato-based accessible minibus, both vehicles supplied by Minibus Options of Whaley Bridge.
“The Ducato is the first vehicle we have had built bespoke from scratch,” says Chris. “We went to Minibus Options’ headquarters and showroom, sat down with their team, and created exactly what we wanted, based on a Minibus Options ‘template’ for the vehicle.
“We have to have removable seats that are basic and practical, and selected Rescroft seating. We prefer inboard passenger lifts because they stay out of the muck and grime.
“The Sprinter is a little different. We plumped for Rescoft’s CT Space seat, which ingeniously has a tip-up squab and slides against the next, creating wheelchair space without having to remove the seats. We can accommodate up to three wheelchairs at a time.”
While Shencare were at Minibus Options, they also spotted a Peugeot WAV in the used vehicle section of the company, and snapped it up straight away.
Half the fleet now has a tracking device, supplied by Teletrac NavMan, and Chris says it is already proving itself very useful. It has enabled Shencare to report the exact times of pick up and identify where any vehicle was at a particular time. This also helps in redirecting vehicles in case of emergency or a late transport request.
In addition, Shencare is trialling forward-facing SmartWitness ‘dash cameras’ and, likewise, has already avoided repercussions from a suspicious incident which could well have been a ‘crash for cash’ attempt.
Shencare has come a long way since running a single minibus – it’s now a service truly at the heart of its community.