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Who pays for free bus passes?

Len Tingle
Len Tingle
Politics Show Yorkshire and Lincolnshire

Chesterfield Council, in North Derbyshire, says it will have to shed staff and cut services because the government is not giving it enough money to foot the bill for the scheme which allows the elderly free off-peak travel on buses.

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Free bus fares for the elderly seems to be a fair thing, but is it financially draining for the councils and operators..?

Gordon Brown announced the national scheme giving the elderly a "gold pass" to use buses for free before the 2005 general election.

At first, it was only for routes within the local council area where the pensioner lived.

In April 2007, it was extended to allow unlimited travel anywhere after the morning rush.

It has been one of the most popular initiatives for the elderly in a generation.

Hundreds of thousand of extra passenger miles have been clocked up by the over-60s.

The gold pass has really got me out of the house...

I'm going to get out and about a long a I can...

I take it with me on holiday and use the buses there for free...

Some pensioners' views

Ticket to ride

Glowing comments at the St Paul's Centre pensioner's lunch club in Chesterfield are typical of what can be heard at any bus stop in the country.

A show of hands from most diners confirmed that they all use their gold pass.

Most travel far more on buses than they did before the scheme started.

But some councils are now complaining that the government's formula for paying for the scheme is deeply flawed.

Lunch club
Pensioners at a lunch club in Chesterfield say they do see the buses more

Nationally, the Department for Transport spends 1bn a year on free travel.

It channels the money through local councils who then pay the bus companies for the revenue they have lost through allowing the elderly to travel for free.

Fair on fares?

Estimates are made to fix the level of grant that each local authority will receive.

Many councils are saying that it has created a system of winner and losers.

Chesterfield says it is a heavy loser.

Local council tax payers are faced with an unexpected shortfall of over 1.5m. For a small council like Chesterfield that is 11% of its entire annual budget.

Rates would have to go up by 40% to bridge the funding gap.

The leader of the council, Liberal Democrat Reg Russell, has nothing but praise for the scheme but says the Department of Transport must do its sums again.

"We have been put in an impossible position," he says. "We must pay the bus companies for the fares they are losing. But we are not given enough money to do it.

Pensioners queuing for off peak free bus travel in Chesterfield
Pensioners queuing for off peak free bus travel in Chesterfield

"But some of our neighbouring councils are being given too much.

"One has had a windfall of half a million pounds for bus trips which its local pensioners have never made."

In fact, of Derbyshire's nine district councils, four have been paid far too much and five are well out of pocket.

The Department of Transport refuses to accept that its funding formula is not working.

In a statement, it stated that Chesterfield's grant had been increased when the scheme changed allowing unlimited bus journeys and that funding should now be adequate.

In Chesterfield Reg Russell, a retired head teacher who taught maths, says the government can not get its sums right.

"The national budget is probably sufficient. But it can not get the formula right for each council. It is causing severe hardship for us and windfalls for others. That can not be right."

Clare Frisby presents the Politics Show for Yorkshire Lincolnshire and the North Midlands Sunday January 25th 2009 at 1200 Noon GMT.

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