Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Council Budget (3) - Concessionary Bus Travel

There's been more heat and less light on the subject of concessionary fares and buses than practically any other budget item. It started with a strangely-written piece in the Echo last week, which described the Council as planning to "downgrade" its concessionary scheme to save £300,000. For good measure, LibDem Cllr. Mike Barker added to the confusion by claiming that the Pedestrian Heart overspend was somehow to blame (it isn't, as I've already blogged).

The first thing to say is that the change has been prompted by a huge improvement to the travel rights of some of the most vulnerable people in society. Let's not forget that until this Labour Government came to power, pensioners had to rely on the largesse of their local council as far as concessionary schemes were concerned. If they had the misfortune to live in a Tory authority, it was entirely possible that there was no support at all.

Coming to power, Labour was committed to introducing a national scheme which would iron out these anomolies. So in 2000, a half price off-peak bus travel statutory minimum concession was introduced in England for those aged over 60 and over and eligible disabled people within their local travel area. In 2006, this was extended to free off peak local bus travel after 9,30am and before 11pm weekdays, again limited to the local authority area.

When the latter came into being, the Council was able to extend the hours of operation. At this time, the bus companies were paid a block amount of cash to compensate them for the free journeys, which meant that they carried a financial risk if more people used the buses than was anticipated.

Now the Government has introduced the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and is allowing concessionaires to travel for free outside local authority boundaries. The statutory minimum scheme continues to exclude travel before 9.30am and after 11pm weekdays.

The Council will have to pay for all trips that are entirely within or start in the Borough, regardless of where the passholder lives. The Government is giving Darlington a grant of £482,000 to meet the costs. A further change is that the Council now has to reimburse the bus companies for each trip made, rather than give them a fixed amount as we have done in previous years (so the Council shoulders the risk).

The net result is that even with the Government grant, the Council finds itself having to find an extra £200,000 for the basic scheme (as above). As it is, next year the Council will spend in the order of £2.2 million on supporting free bus travel for pensioners. Allowing concessionaires to travel at any time weekdays would add perhaps another £300,000 to the budget. In this year, where the Council is working hard to keep the cost of Council Tax increase below 5%, this would have been a very difficult sum to find, and would have meant cutting important services.

Finally, in my experience as the previous Highways portfolio holder when the Government brought in the earlier schemes, I was frequently lobbied by pensioners and disabled people who told me that what mattered to them wasn't travelling before 9.30am, but rather the ability to go to nearby conurbations like Newton Aycliffe, Bishop Auckland, and Teesside (outside the Borough boundary).

At the time that wasn't possible, but now thanks to the Labour Government it is. For that reason, I'm sure that once pensioners and others realise how they can travel anywhere by bus free of charge, after 9.30am weekdays and at any time weekends, then those happy with the change will greatly outnumber those who aren't.


ian said...

You have once again comletely avoided the comments re subsidised travel (from sadberge) and the removal of Parish grants.

With no safe pedestrian or cycle route from sadberge, for many the bus service is the only link with the rest of the borough. It is little more than a skeleton service at best already, (as you experienced).
With the primary school gone too, this hardly makes for a sustainable community does it?

You are looking to save 34k by removing parish grants altogether. Not a huge amount in the scheme of things but hugely valuable in helping to resourse community facilities in the vilages. Community facilities your council is paying for in the urban areas.
ie new community centre for skerne park.

You are removing one post from the Comm. P/ships in the town to save 30k, how many will remain and at what cost?
Surely by continuing to support Comm. P/ships form DBC coffers, yet expecting the villagers to pay extra to support the parish councils you are absolutley NOT represnting all communities equally.

Your Leader has stated in the Press that "millions have been spent in the villages" He has so far been unable to justify this comment. Perhaps you could help him out?

That this document ever came to get published is a sad inditement of DBC and clearly illustrates the contempt they hold for rural communities.

Ian White, said...

Here here!

Also what of the people who have 9am hospital/doctor or dentist appointments we are not all that fortunate we can chop and change these to suit the bus's, without rearanging another many weeks down the line, Just who's bright idea was it to allow the bus company's this new deal, they from my research get paid handsomly as it is, perhaps its time to tell them what they will get instead of them telling us what they want!

As for the comments on the loss of Parish funds my views are clear on this in another post, its attrocious, callous and indicative of our present system.

It is no wonder the Labour Party is dropping in the polls when these sort of actions are the best "game plan" they can come up with.

Stop the wastage on street entertainment, fireworks (the full lot) etc, village services are more important for the people all year round than one off days of so called entertainment.

Nick, remind me how much was spent on white boards to justify the closure of Hurworth Comp?

If memory recalls it was 50K, your sign at stone bridge 19K, water feature 149K, flashing poles £42k need I go on?

It is apparent to the layman where priority's are!

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes.....

Please will you respond to the two questions I posed about the cut backs in Trading Standards.

Thank you.

On a separate, but related point, I wrote three emails to Alan Milburn in September and October last year about my dentist going private. I asked if he would approach the Secretary of State to pump money into the Dental Service to prevent this happening. I received three acknowledgements and nothing further. I do expect a bit of attention from my MP. What do you think?

dadge said...

Hi Nick. Largesse, innit. A

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks for your comments everyone.

Firstly, "hi" to dadge, who is an old university friend. Adrian is now swimming with the sharks on online poker - do check out his blogsite

Next - Ian H - I've posted on the rural grant, and how this isn't some kind of double standards as far as investment in the town is concerned.

The proposal to withdraw the subsidy for the Sadberge bus service is another one of those really tough decisions. You should bear in mind that the Council is looking at how an alternative form of transport (maybe a community minibus service?) could provide a viable alternative, and I know Assistant Chief Exec Richard Alty discussed this with the parish council when he visited recently.

There does come a point when the cost of a supported bus service has to come under intense scrutiny. The Council spends £230,000 a year supporting rural services (there's an example of DBC putting discrete extra cash into rural areas by the way). 57% goes on services 17 and 97. On stretches where no other bus companies operate, this equates to £3.94 per passenger per journey for service 17 and £3.71 for service 97.

Ian W - would that it were so easy to dictate to the bus companies what sort of deal we can strike as far as the operation of the national concessionary travel scheme is concerned! The formula the bus companies are using now in Darlington is commonplace, and I seem to recall, one that has been tested in the courts. The Council really doesn't have an option, I'm afraid.

You then go on to say;

"Stop the wastage on street entertainment, fireworks (the full lot) etc, village services are more important for the people all year round than one off days of so called entertainment.

Nick, remind me how much was spent on white boards to justify the closure of Hurworth Comp?

If memory recalls it was 50K, your sign at stone bridge 19K, water feature 149K, flashing poles £42k need I go on?"

As you may have seen from the budget papers, the Cabinet did consider reducing the fireworks budget by half. We didn't proceed with that option, however - I strongly believe that by having a top class event in South Park, it prevents many families having to buy fireworks for their back gardens, and so prevents a lot of accidents (as well, of course as providing top class entertainment - bead and circuses etc).

As you may have gathered from my response to Mike Barker's charges over the PH, money spent on the water feature or the light display is totally separate from the revenue budget, and had no effect on this year's changes. It's like comnparing apples and oranges.

Alan - as far as Trading Standards are concerned, I would not quibble with the information put out by staff about the impact the reductions may have. I took advice myself on this matter as you would expect, and I was informed, however, that the trading standards function itself (outside of consumer advice) will be able to proceed as per local priorities. This is true, for example, as far as enforcement of laws relating to the sale of tobacco and alcohol to children is concerned. I am clear that this will not be compromised as a result of the proposed budget.

That being said, we are continuing to talk to the trade unions about various options available that will deliver the best deal for both the public.

Regarding correspondence with the MP - I have emailed his office, and no doubt someone will be getting back soon.

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes....

Thank you, Nick.