A leading church figure has warned that proposals to restrict the number of people who can drive minibuses in Northern Ireland could lead to a crisis for volunteer-reliant organisations.
Retired Whitewell Tabernacle pastor James McConnell said he had serious concerns that the ongoing Department of Infrastructure consultation could result in drivers being unable to provide a valuable community lifeline.
That consultation is not due to close until November 17, however, a source with knowledge of the department’s thinking on the issue told the News Letter that the department’s permanent secretary, Peter May, is considering making a decision himself even though there is no minister in place.
It is understood that during the last eight years officials in the department have been keen to change the way that driver licensing works for minibuses but have consistently been overruled by ministers.
Pastor McConnell, who has maintained a strong connection with Whitewell, said the drivers provide much more than just transport.
“They are part of the fabric of the church. I used to call my bus drivers my ‘mini pastors’ because they let me know who was ill and who was in trouble, so it’s much more of a service than just driving a bus. Some of them have been driving buses for us for 40 years.
“People depend on the service as a lifeline. At one stage we had 47 18-seater minibuses, but I don’t know how many we have now,” he added.
Previously, community transport drivers and school teachers who held a car driving licence could also have driven a minibus. However, revised guidance from the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) states that they must now have a D1 category licence to do so, which can cost up to £1,000 to acquire and months to complete.
It has been understood that the new regulations – which have been put on hold until January 2018 at the earliest – would not become effective until a new infrastructure minister is in place and rubber-stamps the recommendations.
Writing in the foreword to the consultation document last month, Mr May said: “The vast majority of licensed bus operators and transport providers in the voluntary and community sector will be unaffected by the proposed changes.”