East Surrey Dial-a-Ride: the struggle to survive

East Surrey Dial-a-Ride, which is based at the Westway Centre in Caterham, is more than a taxi service. It’s a valuable community resource which is relied upon by its many members.

It was a cold winter’s day when the minibus pulled up outside the house. The driver got out, knocked on the front door and waited for several minutes, but there was no response from inside. At this point, a taxi company may well have given up and left, eager to get to their next paying fare. The East Surrey Dial-a-Ride (ESDAR) driver, however, was immediately concerned for the occupant’s welfare, and headed round to the back of the house. Peering through a window, he could see the 90-year-old woman lying motionless on the floor inside and called an ambulance. She was able to make a full recovery, thanks to the diligence and care of the ESDAR volunteer. 

ESDAR logo

Since 1989, registered charity ESDAR has provided travel solutions for those who, due to mobility issues, advanced years or sight difficulties, find public transport challenging. Many people across the Tandridge District postcodes of CR3 and CR6 (Caterham, Chaldon, Chelsham, Farleigh, Warlingham and Woldingham) rely on the reassuring personal service it offers – yet it is currently facing a struggle for survival.

In 2017, Tandridge District Council streamlined the way it supported mobility transport services and, as a consequence, ESDAR lost the regular funding it received from them and Surrey County Council (SCC). 

It has 12 employees – three part-time and nine on zero-hours contracts – and seven trustees, who receive no remuneration for their duties. When Pat Cannon became chairman of trustees in 2020, he realised the organisation would need to change the way it worked if it was to continue:

“Unfortunately, no Dial-a-Ride can survive just by providing a core service of transporting elderly, disabled and isolated passengers. The overheads, which include the constant maintenance of our five old wheelchair accessible 12-seater diesel minibuses, are just too great.

We had hoped to be able to take on non-essential patient transport for the NHS, but the provider we would have been working with has been unable to raise the money to pay for it. 

We are now, however, after two years of preparation, in a position to bid through SCC for school contracts, including those for children with special educational needs and disabilities, which is good but doesn’t change the stark reality that we are currently losing about £6k per month. Two generous grants by SCC have ensured we will last until the end of this financial year but after that our future is uncertain.”

ESDAR membership (which only requires basic contact details and confirmation of mobility difficulties and disabilities) is currently free, and fares are heavily subsidised at £2.50 per mile for a single journey, with a minimum single or return fare of £5. Longer journeys of over seven miles can also be accommodated, and fares, which are extremely reasonable compared to taxi charges, can be agreed at the time of booking. All ESDAR’s drivers are fully trained, health and safety compliant and DBS checked to at least enhanced level.

As of 30 June this year, ESDAR had 436 registered members, of whom 85 use wheelchairs and 109 require walking aids. Passenger trips during the financial year ending March 2023 totalled 5,965, up from 4,114 in 2021/22. Of these, 2,429 were by users of a wheelchair or walking aid. During the first quarter of 2023, ESDAR had already completed 1,841 passenger trips, with 790 of them providing assistance for those in wheelchairs or with walking aids. 

Members use the service to travel to a variety of places, including doctor, dentist and clinic appointments, shops, libraries, hairdressers, pubs, restaurants and clubs or to visit friends and family. It transports many people to and from the Westway Centre, the Warlingham Lunch Club, Bletchingley Skills Centre, the Dementia Club in Farleigh, Oxted’s Woodhouse Centre, and clubs at The Miller Centre in Caterham. 

Passengers can also enjoy ESDAR’s seasonal excursions, when they can meet other members on day trips to the seaside, vineyards and other places of interest. 

If ESDAR was to close, Pat says, an additional burden would be placed on the public purse, not to mention the potentially tragic outcomes for the many people who rely on it:

“East Surrey Dial-A-Ride provides a lifeline to so many people with age-related issues, as well as those with disabilities, or who suffer from loneliness and isolation.

The service is bespoke, in that it picks up its passengers from their door, ensuring that all security in the home is taken into account, and helps them board the vehicle, before delivering them safely to their destination.

Unfortunately, the service alone cannot support itself and we’ve been struggling to keep afloat amidst the impending doom. We have produced a business plan, ‘ESDAR to 2030’, which demonstrates that we can survive if we secure both public funding and, ideally, a ‘knight in shining armour’ in the form of a corporate sponsor, who would work with us to secure our future. 

Without such corporate help, however, the service is unlikely to survive past the end of the financial year.”

If you are interested in sponsoring East Surrey Dial-a-Ride, please visit their website.

Patron Sir Richard Stilgoe in an ESDAR minibus
Patron Sir Richard Stilgoe in an ESDAR minibus
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