Town mayor, Cllr Mike Fice greeted the new bus’s arrival in the grounds of Woodcot on Cliff Road along with supporters and users of the minibus.
The bus is operated by a team of about 20 volunteer drivers and couriers and is the seventh consecutive vehicle in just over 40 years.
In the 1970s, Salcombe Town Council started the idea of having a bus to help the elderly and infirm residents to travel in the hilly town, go further afield for shopping and take longer trips to enjoy the beauty of the South Hams.
The organisation was run by a council subcommittee which, from 1976, evolved to become a stand-alone organisation with representatives from the town council and organisations whose members benefited from the bus.
The committee was of charitable status but not a formally registered charity.
To comply with the Transport Act 1985, the bus is operated under a section 19 permit issued by the Community Transport Association. However, changes in regulations meant that the permit would only be renewed if the organisation had a legally recognised constitution. After 18 months of hard work to incorporate the organisation, last year it became a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) which in turn allowed it to register as a charity, renew the permit and gain other benefits associated with being a charity. Evolving into the new organisation also put it on a good footing to replace its minibus.
The current chairman of the CIO and Salcombe Citizen of the Year, Tim Mattocks said: “The bus is not just a form of transport but a social club on wheels. Without it, some elderly and frail residents would rarely get out of their homes. The bus gives them the chance for a natter, spread news of the latest scandal and have a scowl at some modern architecture.
“When I first started driving the bus, I used to try and work out the most efficient way to get the passengers home but that is not what they want! They want a tour round the town and maybe a brief stop at North Sands to watch people and dogs playing on the beach. When we come back from Kingsbridge, we sometimes drive along the old coach road. Because the bus is high, we can see over the hedges and stop at the ends of the creeks to check on the nesting swans, before coming into Salcombe via Batson.”
Town mayor, Cllr Mike Fice said: “It’s a vitally important asset for the town, particularly for the older people. It gets people out and about who otherwise wouldn’t.
“The ‘town run’ on Thursdays is a bit like a social club, with most ending up at the over-60s day centre at Victoria Quay.
“The other main use is shopping trips, and with the couriers onboard, they get their shopping delivered into their homes.”
The bus can take up to 11 passengers or eight passengers with two wheelchairs. It goes on six shopping trips to neighbouring towns each month, together with a weekly town run to the shops and facilities in Salcombe. It drops and picks up passengers at the Post Office, Health Centre and over 60s day centre.
Each month there are one or two excursions to local attractions such as Dartmoor, Teignmouth, Tavistock, Newton Abbot, Trago Mills, Drake Circus and the Willows shopping centres and garden centres. Every Tuesday, passengers are taken to the Royal Voluntary Service lunch club and annually there is an evening run to see the Christmas lights in Salcombe, Kingsbridge and surrounding villages. Requests for excursions from other organisations like Salcombe WI are also supported.
Although many passengers can travel for free on the local buses, the advantage of shopping using the Salcombe Minibus is that the courier and driver help load the shopping at the supermarket and carry it into the house, once home. Of course, the volunteers also check that a passenger is well and has not had a fall if they call to pick them up and they don’t come to the door.
Because the bus needs low fold-out steps for passengers and seats have to be removable to accommodate wheelchairs passengers, an ‘off the shelf’ minibus cannot be used. Instead, a plain van is bought and a false floor with tracks is bonded in place. Passengers are held to their seats by safety belts and the seats or wheelchair clamps lock securely into the floor tracks for safety in a crash. The floor is therefore a significant and expensive piece of engineering which has to comply with several safety standards.
The conversion work is carried out by a specialist company, GM Coachwork Ltd. near Chudleigh, who have many years’ experience converting all sorts of cars and vans to suit disabled customers.
Mr Mattocks continued: “GM Coachwork’s support is essential to provide the vehicle we need and I thank them for their support on this and previous vehicles.
“We have been fortunate with the new bus to be able to add features which are of great benefit, like an electrically driven side door and fold out steps. On the previous bus, it was sometimes a struggle to open and close the side door and fold steps in/out, particularly on hills. Now, this can be done by the push of a button.”
The new bus is a Peugeot Boxer with extra-long wheelbase. It is longer than the old Renault Master so could take more seats but this would make it a bit cramped for leg room so it was decided to keep the same number of seats but build in storage shelves and overhead lockers. Previously, the number of passengers had to be limited on shopping trips to allow room for the shopping but now it should be possible to take more people and put their bags in the bespoke storage areas.
Of course, the new bus also has a tail lift for wheelchairs and standing passengers who are unsteady. The new tail lift is longer than the previous one, making it easier for the person pushing the wheelchair to stand behind it on the lift and operate the mechanism. Several features are to comply with the latest safety regulations, including a large perspex roof light which doubles as an escape hatch. In case we get a hot summer, the cabin also has air conditioning! And simple touches, like red seat belts so the courier can easily see if all the passengers have put them on, make the operation easier.
“We could have had ‘disco lights’ installed in the roof lining too - popular for hen and stag nights, but this might have proved too much temptation for the passengers!” Mr Mattocks said.
“The organisation is extremely fortunate to be supported by an army of volunteers in the local community; not only those that act as officers and trustees of the CIO but also the drivers, couriers and fundraisers. I am very grateful for their hard work.
“All of them give freely of their time and expertise and, without their support, the service would simply not exist,” Mr Mattocks added.
Of course, it takes a lot of funds to purchase a new bus and experience shows that this is best done every eight to 10 years to ensure the vehicle remains reliable and not too expensive to maintain. Funds are needed too for the day to day operation. Insurance alone is more than £1,000 each year and then there is servicing, maintenance, fuel etc.
Funding comes from many local organisations including Salcombe Town Council, the Rotary Club of Salcombe, Estuary Masonic Lodge, Devon County Council, the Royal Voluntary Service and others who wish to remain anonymous.
The organisation does not make a profit and use of the bus is free to passengers but they can choose to make donations towards running costs, if they would like to.
The organisation is also well supported by a cream tea each summer, held in the gardens of Woodcot in Salcombe, with the kind permission and help of the residents, not to mention raffle prizes donated for the event by local firms like Coast and Country Cottages. Supplies for the teas come from Cranch’s and Tesco. Several other local businesses give support by hosting collection boxes.
“One holiday home owner was having a new kitchen and promised to donate the proceeds from the sale of her old kitchen to the minibus! There are also anonymous donations given, some of which are considerable, and bequeaths are sometimes made. All in all, the support from the community is phenomenal but also essential. Thanks again to every organisation that supports us, not all of which I have mentioned,” Mr Mattocks continued.
“The first trip for the new bus was on Tuesday – collecting residents around the town and taking them to the Rugby club for the RVS lunch, then home again, probably via North Sands for a breath of sea air,” Mr Mattocks added.