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.
Service cuts and job losses will be inevitable if the Welsh Government cuts payments for free bus travel by more than 37% next year, bus professionals have warned.
When pensioners and disabled people across Wales were given unlimited free bus travel in 2002, all bus operators were compelled by law to carry pass holders without charging a fare.
The law also committed the Welsh Government to paying for each passenger at a rate which leaves the bus operator no better or worse off than if the free travel were unavailable.
Since 2002 the operators have been reimbursed 73.59% of their average single fare. This was reviewed and confirmed as the appropriate figure four years ago.
But the Welsh Government recently told the bus industry it intends to pay just 46% of the average fare from April 1. Managers say that would have a dramatic impact on their revenue, forcing them to withdraw services and reduce their fleets and staffing.
Pensioners who ride Welsh buses for free may have to pay a 10p flat fare in future, a senior bus manager has suggested as concerns mount over the scheme’s future.
The Welsh Government and bus operators agreed in 2011 to cap the budget for the concessionary scheme for three years, with an annual rise of up to 3% to cover inflation in bus operating costs. However, the costs of operating buses in Wales increased by 5.4% in the year to June 2013.
The Welsh Government has not started the negotiations over how the free travel will be funded from April, although councils need at least six months’ notice of any changes.
WalesOnline has learned that managers have already drawn up contingency plans for service withdrawals and possible depot closures if the Welsh Government implements an effective cut in the payment per concessionary passenger carried.
And last week Arriva Buses Wales said “potential forthcoming changes to the concessionary fares scheme” were among the reasons it plans to close all of its depots and services in Mid Wales in December.
Arriva is to axe six of its rural bus routes by Christmas – how will this affect our already ailing countryside economy?
There was a further blow to people living in rural areas this week with the news that Arriva is to cut six of its rural bus routes before Christmas.
To people who live in villages along those routes, those cuts will have a devastating impact.
There is an image of rural living that everyone inhabits a cosy cottage with a nearby school, village pub, a thriving corner shop and drives a rugged 4×4.
That might be true on Emmerdale but in the 21st century real world in North Wales, living in the country is not such an idyll.
The chances are if your village school hasn’t already shut it will be closing soon.
The pub, if you’ve got one, is struggling because of a series of factors – high rents, beer prices and the smoking ban being just a few.
The village shop and post office are probably a distant memory along with your doctor’s surgery and your local chapel.
Not every person living in our rural areas has access to a car. Even if they do, it doesn’t always meet the entire travelling needs of a family – work, school, shopping, Brownies, gym club, dentists etc.
Bus travel in Wales has slumped to its lowest since the Welsh Government launched free bus passes for over-60s and disabled people, new statistics reveal.
The fall of 6.9% in Welsh passenger journeys last year was more than twice the fall in either England or Scotland.
The decline coincided with the first stage of the Welsh Government’s 25% cut to bus funding – a deeper overall cut than in England and Scotland.
Statistics from the Department for Transport in London also reveal that Welsh bus fares increased by 6.9% last year – more than twice the rate of general inflation and outstripping fares increases in England and Scotland.
Campaigners warned of more people being forced into “transport poverty”, and urged the Welsh Government to reverse its policy of cutting bus funding from £33m in 2011-12 to just £25m this year.
The Welsh Government declined to comment on the statistics or explain how the bus situation could affect its policies on social inclusion, reducing carbon emissions, improving access to education, promoting public health and stimulating the economy
Our comment: 6.9% increase in fares seems to have had a clear effect, so in fact the increase has brought no additional income to bus operators, as more people can no longer afford the fares.
A new squad of Welsh footballers has tasted international competition.
The first Wales learning disability team faced Northern Ireland at Bangor City’s Nantporth Stadium in Gwynedd, losing 2-0 to the visitors.
More than 700 players represent clubs in the Welsh Pan-Disability League and 16 have been chosen for the fixture.
“It’s a massive achievement and I can’t say just how proud I am to be involved in it and it’s the same for the lads,” said team manager Grant Kalahar.
“All of these lads have learning difficulties. There are other attributable issues as well, such as the frustrations that come with not being able to learn and there’s behavioural problems attached.
“So what we tend to do is get to know the players absolutely inside out, so we can see the little triggers early.”
Wales’ £70m-a-year free bus pass scheme is highly vulnerable to fraud – with alcoholics using them to travel to the pub among other widespread problems, say industry insiders.
The cost of the free travel scheme has soared from £17.7m to £69m in the decade since it was launched by the Welsh Government in 2002.
Bus managers say nearly a third of free journeys are taken by under-60s who have been judged to need a pass, even though 90% of the free passes are issued to pensioners.
And they argue that many of the passes are routinely misused, with alcoholics using passes – issued to them because of their dependency – to travel to the pub.
A Welsh transport consultant, who also asked not to be named, said he had heard evidence of this from drivers on a route between rural towns.
“There’s been some animosity from other passengers that alcoholics have a free pass to get drunk and they have to pay a fare, which is a pint or two,” he said.
Our comment: is this anything more than anicdotal evidence from a few disgruntled bus drivers? We doubt that empowering bus drivers to ask for details of the purpose of a journey would go down well.
A REMARKABLE nine out of 10 people with a learning disability say they have been the victim of a hate crime, figures show.
Two charities will this week – learning disability week – call for more action to protect people who experience such crime and abuse and to prosecute perpetrators.
Mencap Cymru and All Wales People First will also call on Welsh police forces to support people with a learning disability who have been victims of hate crime and on the CPS in Wales to improve conviction rates.
Although surveys show hate crime and bullying towards people with a learning disability is common, the number of people who report these crimes is far lower.
Jonathan Richards, who lives in Carmarthen and is a member of the All Wales People First national committee, was attacked at Aberystwyth train station in 2010.
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