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.