As power slipped away from Labour ministers, during their last years of government, they seemed to think they could spend their way out of trouble. In doing so, they set the timer going on numerous policy time bombs ready to go off well after the looming General Election. We can only speculate whether this was a deliberate strategy to damage an incoming Conservative Government and wonder how Labour ministers would have dealt with the chaos they created if they had been re-elected.
One of those carefully primed polices set to explode in the Tories face is the concessionary travel scheme. It is a successful and popular policy, which we rightly pledged to retain, as it makes a difference to so many pensioners’ lives. Yet, it is a policy that no government could have financially sustained. Labour’s stated intention was that the statutory provision of the scheme would not leave local authorities out of pocket. This was never realistic in the current economic climate, leaving council taxpayers to fund the shortfall or forcing councils to reduce non-statutory bus services. My own county council in Norfolk, face axing subsidised bus services in order to deal with a 38% funding reduction, despite already finding an extra £1.5 million from within their own budget. Norfolk County Council has worked hard to renegotiate a better deal with bus operators, driving down costs but this is not enough to bridge the funding gap. The concessionary pass risks becoming worthless if there are no bus routes on which to use them.
The problem hits shire counties the hardest, as they are the biggest losers financially but have the highest proportion of rural services requiring subsidy to operate. Norfolk MPs are taking the lead in lobbying ministers for a fairer funding deal, urging them to look again at the revised formula. More has to be done to ensure the on-going viability of the scheme and that means considering other options.
A recent study by the University of Leeds indicates that a quarter of all concessionary fare journeys are undertaken by just 3% of pass holders. There is anecdotal evidence that many pensioners apply for a pass simply because of entitlement but never use it or only sporadically. In 2013, councils are faced with issuing millions of replacement cards as they expire after just five years. In Norfolk, this will cost nearly £1/4 million to administer; money better spent on maintaining services. A nominal administration charge or amending the law to extend card validity will avoid this.
Is it time to look at some form of charging? Already one bus company is a requesting a voluntary contribution from pass holders in order to maintain a route. A flat rate of 50p per trip would generate over £5 million a year in Norfolk, an easy and relatively pain-free way of plugging the gap. Another option is to limit the number of trips taken each year, to say fifty and have a reduced rate for every trip taken after this. Should we look at only issuing passes to households that do not have a car, better targeting the scheme to those most in need, without the need for means-testing?
Ahead of the election, we avoided discussion of reform for fear of alarming millions of key voters. We need to urgently look at reform now. I want to continue to allow as many pensioners as possible to benefit but unless we alter the system we risk the whole scheme falling apart.