Scotland’s transport minister has been accused of “freely admitting” a potential shake-up over free bus travel after he raised “concerns” over their long-term sustainability. Humza Yousaf made the comments just weeks before the results of a wide-ranging consultation on raising the age of eligibilty.
He said it was important to find a balance with the scheme and ensuring affordability, due to Scotland’s ageing population. Mr Yousaf said there was “concern around the longer-term sustainability” of the scheme, with Scottish ministers considering raising the age of eligibilty. He added: “We know that we have an ageing population, an ageing demographic – as most of western Europe does – and therefore we have to find a balance between making this scheme fair, realising the benefits of it, and making it sustainable in the long term.
Councils are spending £200m a year subsidising the concessionary bus fares scheme, new analysis has revealed.
The Local Government Association (LGA) warned the scheme has been underfunded for years by central government, and is being financially topped up by councils at the expense of other discretionary services.
In a new report – due to be published later this week – the LGA is calling on the Government to fully fund the concessionary fares scheme and give councils control over the Bus Service Operators’ Grant.
Cllr Martin Tett, LGA transport spokesman, said: ‘Faced with significant funding pressures, many across the country are being forced into taking difficult decisions to scale back services and review subsidised routes.
‘The way the concessionary travel scheme is funded by Whitehall has not kept up with growing demand and cost. By giving councils control over the Bus Service Operators’ Grant, and properly funding the free bus pass schemes the government could help us support and maintain our essential bus services, reduce congestion and protect vital routes.’
Earlier this year The Sunday Post revealed how the Scottish Government is planning to increase the eligibility age for the popular concessionary travel scheme.
It is expected this will see the minimum age rise from 60 to 65 with current pass-holders unaffected.
Figures released under freedom of information laws show that last year £45m of the £187.7m spent on the free bus pass scheme was accounted for by users in the 60 to 64 age bracket.
Around one in five holders of the free bus pass are between the ages of 60 and 64, with many of them working commuters.
Meanwhile, a new poll has revealed the majority of older Scots have backed the age increase.
Scottish Labour’s transport spokesman Neil Bibby MSP said: “The SNP is failing passengers up and down the country.
“Under the nationalists, vital services have been cut while ticket prices have gone up. Communities have been left stranded as key routes have been scrapped.
Councils can no longer provide pensioners and disabled people with free off-peak bus travel local leaders have warned, effectively issuing ministers with an ultimatum ahead of the Autumn Statement.
The Local Government Association (LGA) said the Government should use the Autumn Statement this month to plug a ‘funding gap’ for the concessionary bus fares scheme, which gives pensioners and disabled people in England free off-peak travel on all local bus services across England.
”Local Cllr Martin Tett, LGA transport spokesman said: ‘Years of underfunding of the scheme has forced councils to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to subsidise the scheme. This is now impossible with councils having to make savings while struggling to protect vital services like adult social care, protecting children, filling potholes and collecting bins.
‘Unless the Government commits to fully funding concessionary fares, elderly and disabled people will be left stranded with a free bus pass in one hand but no local buses to travel on in the other.’
Our comment: what a prospect, good bye triple lock, good bye bus passes ?
UK businesses would also suffer a lot from either, I’d guess that pensioners our age are spending rather than hoarding their income ?
Stagecoach chief executive Martin Griffiths described the Scottish transport market as challenging but said the transport group remained committed to investing in its home market.
The firm is locked in negotiations over the future of its Cowdenbeath depot in Fife.
Mr Griffiths said talks were ongoing with the unions about “realigning some of the business” in Fife and said the wider Scottish market was difficult as authorities kept an eye on budgets.
“Scotland is quite difficult at the moment – our economy is still challenged,” Mr Griffiths said.
He said tendered services were being squeezed and there was an issue with returns for concessionary travel, such as that offered through the free bus pass scheme for pensioners and disabled people.
“The Scottish Government has been reducing concessionary reimbursements,” he continued.
“To carry more people on concession but for the company to have less is not a sustainable business model. Long-term, what we do with the concessionary scheme will need to be debated.”
The issue was also tackled in the firm’s preliminary results statement.
Up and down the country bus services are being cut to reduce costs – all the while making bus pass users less able to use their bus pass. The problems seem at their worst in rural areas where bus services are much less frequent than in urban areas.
This raises the concern that the funding which is provided by the Department for Transport is being creamed off to support other services and the same may be the case with the Bus Service Operators Grant.
We are getting very regular complaints from people in many areas of England about the decision to make people wait until they are 66 to get a bus pass, and people fear that when they finally get a bus pass there will be few bus services left to use them on. We can’t help thinking that politicians realise how important pensioners are when it comes to the ballot box, so they don’t dare talk down the bus pass, but are finding other ways of reducing the bus pass cost, i.e. b y reducing bus services.
This ignores the many good reason for retaining the bus pass, including the recent study which reported Every £1 spent on concessionary fare bus passes generates more than £2.87 for wider economy. With this in mind we are writing to the Department for Transport to ask what assurance they can give that funding to local authorities for bus passes, and the Bus Service Operators Grant is not being siphoned off by local authorities. We await their reply.
A GOVERNMENT body has disputed claims by Brighton and Hove City Council that it gets “no funding” for concessionary bus travel.
In the council’s annual parking report it said concessionary bus travel for the elderly and disabled in the city was paid for by the profit from the city’s parking initiatives.
It said out of the near £11.5 million made from on street parking fines and tickets £10.2 million of that is spent on providing the city’s 46,000 bus passes.
But a spokesman for the Department of Transport (DfT) said the council does receive funding.
He said: “It is wrong to claim that councils do not receive funding for concessionary travel.
“Councils are required by law to provide free off-peak concessionary travel on local bus services to eligible older and disabled people and the government provides them with nearly £1 billion to do precisely this.
“Local authorities are able to provide concessionary travel to other groups at their own discretion.”
The council said this funding is not adequate and it has to resort to other means of funding.
Taxpayers in Britain spend more than £1 billion a year providing free bus travel. Mostly used by pensioners, some disabled people qualify for this concessionary travel, and there are fears that an austerity-driven government will cut back on the passes.
Some commentators have suggested there is scope for reducing public spending by cutting the scheme – £1 billion is, after all, a lot of money. Research suggests, however, that free bus passes are good value and worth maintaining.
Overall, it is impossible to put an exact value on all the benefits of concessionary travel passes, but it seems extremely likely that it would cost well over £1 billion to provide those benefits in other ways. This means that proposals to cut the funding for the scheme in order to reduce public expenditure are likely to lead to a lot of unhappy older people – and, because older people tend to vote, could also have a decisive impact in the general election.
If the pass were abolished, it would probably cost the taxpayer more in the long run. And it would take a brave – or foolish – politician who is prepared to remove a popular benefit from a significant proportion of the electorate.
SDLP Foyle MLA Pat Ramsey has expressed support for the ‘Hands Off of our bus pass’ campaign in response to news that funding for the concessionary fares scheme could be under threat.
Mr Ramsey says he is fully behind the Age Sector Platform campaign, and says he has been contacted by a number of people in Derry who are “angry and outraged” at the thought such a vital resource could be taken away.
“To think this hugely important scheme could be stripped away from the most vulnerable people in our society is outrageous and people are rightly angry about this,” said Mr Ramsey.
“The scheme is vital to so many of our older people and was pursued by the SDLP for many years. I have no doubt that had it not been for the work of party colleagues in the past this scheme would never have got off the ground
A drastic fall in trade caused by the decision to axe free tram travel for pensioners in Wyre will force people out of business, it has been claimed.
Traders today spoke of their fear as decision-makers are locked in a stand-off over who should foot the bill for concessionary tram travel – and called for immediate action.
Fresh talks over bringing back free travel for NoWcard holders appear unlikely as Wyre Council and Lancashire County Council stand firm over the issue.
County Hall has offered to share the cost of bringing back the subsidy – thought to be worth around £180,000 – with Wyre Council.
However, Wyre leader Peter Gibson insists any costs should be met by LCC and Blackpool Council, which are the transport authorities for their areas.
Our comment: This clearly confirms the beneficial effect which bus pass users have for businesses.
STAGECOACH Group has threatened a legal challenge over plans by the Welsh Government to reduce the budget of its concessionary travel scheme.
The transport operator said it intends to bring a judicial review, which is a court proceeding where a judge looks at the lawfulness of a decision or action by a public body, unless the Welsh assembly’s plan is reconsidered before April 1.
The potential action comes after the Welsh Government recently agreed a funding package of £189 million for free bus travel in Wales for the next three years.
That is a reduction of more than 11% on the £213.3m that has been allocated during the past three years.
Around 720,000 people in Wales, including serving members and veterans from the armed forces, are eligible to use the scheme.
Stagecoach said its legal advisors suggest the Welsh Government has made an error by capping the scheme to fit within a budget as opposed to following a statutory principle that transport operators should be no better and no worse off as a result of a concessionary scheme.
That principle makes allowances so operators should not miss out on the fares they would have collected while also taking into account the likelihood that more people are likely to travel as a result of a concessionary scheme.
Perth based Stagecoach is the largest bus operator in Wales with seven depots, almost 400 vehicles and around 900 staff.
AN MP is pressing for a change in the law which bans pensioners from contributing towards bus services.
Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh has applied for a House of Commons debate as campaigners dubbed the Concessionary Bus Travel Act “bizarre” as elderly passengers on trains have to pay £30 to receive a concessionary rail card.
North Yorkshire County Council leader Councillor John Weighell estimated tens of thousands of pensioners in the county want to contribute towards fares to make 150 threatened services financially viable for bus operators.
The authority, which is mid-way through cutting its budget by £168m, decided to cut its bus subsidies by £2m earlier this week, despite warnings over the loss of services to sheltered housing estates and doctors’ surgeries.
The council spends £8m a year subsidising pensioners’ bus travel in the county, which has a high proportion of elderly residents, who represent 70 per cent of the bus services’ users.
Coun Weighell said he would write to the Transport Secretary to highlight pensioners’ frustration over the law.