Fast forward 30 years and what started out as the the Holbeach and District Bus is now Holbeach and District Community Vehicle: “The idea back then was that coach hire was too expensive for small groups so the community formed a group and got a minibus,” said Martin Howard, the scheme’s Chairman who manages the current vehicle.
The first minibus was donated by the council but the group then bought an Omnibus – the radical lowfloor minibus with lowering air suspension: “That one didn’t last long,” says Martin. “After a number of problems, the engine went.”
“Things looked up in 2002 when we got a Countryside Agency grant and bought an LDV new. Of course, even by then many of the groups we used to carry had gone – folded as needs changed.” The LDV gave good service, though, and was parked and cared for in Martin’s car port, built specially for it.
“In 2011 we were asked to join a brokerage scheme for community transport vehicles, which would conjoin us with schemes locally,” says Chris. “By that time the LDV was starting to cost a lot in maintenance so we applied for a grant. The Community Transport Association, of which we are members, suggested talking to Minibus Options.”
The latest vehicle – a Volkswagen Crafter conversion by Minibus Options – was bought in 2012 with the aid of the £25,000 capital grant from Lincolnshire County Council. Additional funding comes from a number of sponsors, charitable donations, and the mileage charge for hire of the minibus.
“We currently charge a flat rate per mile,” said Chris Brandon-King, a former bank manager and Treasurer of the scheme. “We do have drivers available but we encourage the user group to supply their own driver. Martin explains how the vehicle works but I have to say it’s very car-like to drive.”
Among considerations for some user groups is operation of the automatic tail-lift which, with the removal of seven of the 16 passenger seats, can provide up to three wheelchair spaces. Martin gives careful instruction to the group on how to use the lift and restraint system, and Holbeach and District Bus insists on an escort travelling with each wheelchair passenger.
The bus itself is still parked at Martin’s house, though it proved too tall for the existing car port. It is guarded by a CCTV system and gets regular TLC from Martin.
Martin keeps a record of the bus’s use on a logsheet, while every hire begins with a driver daily walk-round check, and the check sheet is clipped to the user record sheet. On the whole, journeys are fairly short as is evidence by the mere 7,400 miles the vehicle has clocked up in its near two years of service. Not all hires go smoothly, with occasional minor damage caused by collisions – one group not only scraped the roof of a vehicle on the way into a height-restricted car park, but repeated the exercise on the way out!
The scheme has its own network of local service agents, who supply its tyres, servicing and body repairs, and the vehicle is refuelled at a local service station on account. While most similar vehicles carry an information sheet so users know where the vehicle should go for running repairs, Holbeach & District Community Vehicle has all the contact details of its regular service agents vinyl-ed on the back of the minibus – that way they can’t get lost!
Local support for the service is very good: “Raising money is not too bad for us, and we also claim Bus Service Operator’s Grant (BSOG) which helps defray costs. We sell advertising on the bus and have sponsors,” said Chris.
Support can be gauged by attendance at the AGM: “Any user group becomes a de facto member by attending the AGM,” says Chris. “Of course, none of us are getting any younger so to stimulate some interest, we advertised the last AGM and got a spot on BBC Radio Lincolnshire. Come the night, there was standing room only. Not all of those at the meeting wanted to get directly involved – we got four new ones – but these events do help us raise money.”
Chris and the committee take great care, he says, to ensure no funding is wasted: “We treat the income as if it was our money,” he says. Chris’s former job as a bank manager is invaluable to the charity, of course. “We have our accounts audited although its’ not strictly required, and report to the county council each year.”
One thing that is clear is that the vehicle will be treasured by groups and the mobility-restricted in the community of Holbeach for some time to come. Martin says they are now actively seeking out other, perhaps newly-formed groups who would benefit from its use, including local youth sports teams. It’s clear that those first 30 years are just the beginning…