councils face disability bus travel cards cut

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Councils face elderly bus travel ‘financial time bomb’

The national free off peak bus travel scheme for the elderly has created a “financial time bomb” which could see other services axed, the country’s largest provincial cities have warned

They have told Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, more Whitehall cash is needed to prevent sweeping cuts elsewhere.

The warning has been sent by the six major passenger transport bodies serving passengers in Greater Manchester, Tyne and Wear, the West Midlands, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Merseyside.

This is the latest blow to the scheme which offers pensioners and the disabled free off peak bus travel in England under a scheme which was introduced by Gordon Brown as he sought to win the backing of elderly voters.

It offers free off peak bus travel to pensioners and the disabled anywhere in England irrespective of the length of the journey.

Although the scheme has been maintained by the Coalition, councils have faced mounting difficulty finding the cash to pay for it.

They include discounted travel for schoolchildren, bus services to isolated areas and dial-a-ride for the disabled.

The councils say that Government support for the scheme will fall by 27 per cent between 2010 and 2015.

“The national concessionary fares scheme allows older and disabled people to retain their independence, to access shops and services, and visit friends and family,” said David Wood, chairman of the Passenger Transport Executive Group representing the six areas.

“There will be little point in a free pass if the bus services that older people are using have to be withdrawn to pay for it. Nobody wants to see that – least of all older and disabled people.”

It is not only major urban areas which have been feeling the pinch, smaller local authorities have also struggled to find the money needed to support the scheme against a backdrop of spending cuts.

Last year pensioners in Hull were invited to give up their right to free bus travel to save some threatened services from the axe.

“Councils are having to contend with an ageing population continually driving up the cost of concessionary travel and government funding cuts,” said Peter Box, chairman of the Local Government Association’s economy and transport board.

The Government’s handling of the scheme was condemned by Maria Eagle, Labour’s transport spokesman.

“When David Cameron made his election pledge to protect their free bus travel, he didn’t tell pensioners that he would be taking away their bus instead. Yet older people are finding they are cut off from essential services and at risk of increased isolation as a result of the Government’s decision to cut funding for bus services by nearly a third.”

But the Department for Transport defended its handling of the scheme. “Statistics published by the Department just last week show that, per journey, the cost of concessionary travel went down, not up, in 2011/12,” a spokesman said.

“Last year we put in place reforms to help local authorities cut the costs of concessionary travel schemes and these reforms are already starting to bite.”

By Sam Downie

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