11 May 2013
Janet Street-Porter's Bus Pass
British media personality, journalist and broadcaster Janet Street-Porter appeared on last week's 10 o'Clock Live show, in which she and Peter Stringfellow, along with journalist and author Shiv Malik, debated whether or not wealthy pensioners should give some of their entitlements back, echoing sentiments made earlier in the week by Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith MP.
The show's audience is visibly below the age of 25, so the political orientation of the show and I would suggest at least two of its four presenters was always going to be in favour of the wealthy coughing up that little bit more. Stringfellow, to his credit, said he would happily hand back his free bus pass though spoiled any positive this could conjure by adding "I don't really care because I'm so rich". Malik was very much the audience's champion, advocating senior citizens really ought to take some sort of 'hit' during the recession and that the winter fuel allowance and free bus pass for those whose income is 'high' would be a good compromise.
Street-Porter's comments, however, is where my interest picked up. The former Mirror Group employee claimed that her free bus pass is actually keeping bus services running during the middle of the day. She claimed that if she and other wealthy pensioners were to surrender their passes, these bus services would not be viable and could be withdrawn.
While there's certainly evidence that OAPs make up the majority of passengers of many bus services in the trough between both daily peaks, everything hinges on the reimbursement rate paid by the local authorities. There are very few bus operators who don't hark for the pre-2006 days when OAPs paid half-fare and the local authority made up the majority of the outstanding 50%.
I wrote a piece for the Lincolnshire Echo two years ago in which I tried to explain how the free bus pass was actually seeing a reduction in services as a result of the poor reimbursement rates. Understandably, many OAPs will agree with Steeet-Porter's view, but most won't have a clue how the politics behind it causes so many bus services to be unprofitable and withdrawn as a direct consequence.
Only last week, Yorkshire Coastliner has said it is looking to operate non-stop sections (at least 15 miles between two stops) on its extensive cross-country network of services thus forcing OAPs to pay for travel as the free bus pass can only be used on 'local stopping services', defined by having no more than 15 miles between any consecutive bus stops. The Yorkshire Coastliner decision isn't bloody-mindedness, but a response to a decision by North Yorkshire County Council to reduce reimbursement rates by 40%.
NYCC dispute the amount, claiming it is more like 20%, but the figure is still so large that an operator is having to effectively alienate a sizeable proportion of its passenger base to continue making a profit.
One aspect of the politics that Street-Porter won't be aware of is that reimbursement is paid on the average fare for each service, calculated by the operator. One of the longest bus routes in England operates from Peterborough to Lowestoft, via King's Lynn, Norwich and Great Yarmouth. If someone with a free bus pass travels end-to-end, the authority in whose area the journey commences has to pay the bus operator (First Eastern Counties) the same amount as someone travelling one stop. It has been mooted this is around £7.
OAPs - be they affluent or not - have no interest in how the free bus pass scheme is administered. It's down to the government to set-up a scheme that works. Direct payment by the DfT to operators, as happens with the Welsh and Scottish schemes, from their respective assembly/parliament and as happens for BSOG (fuel duty rebate) to all national operators, would be the logical step. Though not so in England.
Local authorities receive cash from the DfT and can set whatever reimbursement level they want. Last year, DfT figures showed the average reimbursement rate (cash) for journeys taken in the shire counties was 96p. If Janet Street-Porter travelled from Lincoln to Grimsby on the InterConnect 3, Stagecoach would receive, on average, £1.92 for a return journey and not a penny more. The adult return fare is over £5. And, of course, this gap in the amount operators receive for accepting the free bus passes compared with the equivalent cash fare is replicated throughout the country.
It would be nice to see Ms Street-Porter directing her vociferous enthusiasm towards the DfT and to champion the reform of the free bus pass to secure its long-term future.
Posted by LEYTR