Funding free bus passes is becoming “nearly impossible” for councils, the Local Government Association has warned, as the number of journeys taken falls to a 12 year low.
Older and disabled bus users have been told by the LGA that subsidising free travel while having to find billions of pounds worth of savings and protect other vital services is a nearly insurmountable task.
Free bus passes are protected by law for over-65’s and disabled customers, but with less money being committed by the government councils are struggling to fulfill their statutory duties of providing good, reliable services with passenger numbers dropping significantly.
Local authority bus budgets in England and Wales were slashed by £20.5 million last year – the eighth consecutive annual cut.
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Bus travel has fallen to its lowest demand since 2006, and ten per cent fewer journeys being taken than ten years ago.
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.