29 January 2008

The story of eventual free travel for concessions

The Transport Act 2000 amended the legislation covering concessionary fares in England and Wales from 1 June 2001 outside London and 1 April 2001 in London. Local authorities had to provide elderly people and disabled persons with at least a half-fare concession on local bus travel. The Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Act 2002 equalised the age of eligibility for travel concessions for men and women at 60 from April 2003. The age for entitlement will increase for both sexes between 2010 and 2020 with the phased increase in women's state pension age.

The legislation provided a minimum concession but did not preclude local authorities from being more generous. As a result of the Transport Act 1985 and the Greater London Authority Act 1999, by December 2005, 42 authorities provided free bus travel for concessions, of these 11 placed peak-time restrictions on travel, while the remainder did not; examples included London, Merseyside and the West Midlands.

As a result the nature and extent of such concessions varied from region to region depending on the local authority; however the minimum on offer was generally half-fare at all times.

The Chancellor announced in the 2005 Budget (on the 16 March) that free off-peak local area bus travel would be introduced in England from 1 April 2006 for those over 60 and the disabled. During the early months of the English free scheme, a report from the TAS consultancy stated that a free, local scheme but on a national level would be of more use to concessions, operators and local authorities alike. In his 2006 Budget speech the Chancellor announced that, from April 2008, 11 million over 60s and disabled people in England would be entitled to free off-peak local bus travel in every area of the country.

But what about the other areas of the UK? Prior to 1 April 2006, Scotland, Wales and Northetn Irleand all offered free concessionary travel to their qualifying residents. There were no geographic restrictions within Wales and Northern Ireland and while Scotland initially did only offer free local travel within the resident's council area, abolished this and joined the ranks of Wales and Northern Ireland at the time the English free scheme was implemented.

The current English scheme is technically classed as off-peak free concessionary travel, which means free travel is not valid before 0930hours on weekdays but at all times at weekends. Despite this, for many this was a welcome change in the law! Rather than the concessionary passenger paying their half of the bus fare to the operator and the local authority the same, now the passenger was travelling for free and the local authority stumping up everything else.

Or were they? With only £350 million extra being made available to local authorities for the scheme (during 2006/7), many agreed with bus operators to pay two-thirds of the full price, or varying percentages in that region. With a massive increase in concessionary travel from 1 April 2006 more passengers were being carried yet proportionately less revenue was finding its way to the bus operators. The seemingly perverse situation was now evident where the public saw bus services become under threat of withdrawal yet additional patronage was very noticeable to all sides.

A high-profile case in the LEYTR area was in Louth, Lincolnshire when local bus operator Stagecoach planned to withdraw service 41 within the town as a result of not receiving enough revenue from the local authority as a result of the increase in free rides. East Lindsey district council eventually stepped in with additional revenue, but in many cases this did not happen - with numerous bus operators taking their local authority to court, and winning.

Some residents actually saw an increase in their bus fares when the free local scheme in England was introduced. Take residents of Yaxley, three miles south of Peterborough, prior to 1 April 2006 they travelled for half-fare into Peterborough, yet now because Yaxley is in Huntingdonshire (the most northerly district of Cambridgeshire) and not in the Peterborough city council unitary authority area, were initially forced to pay full adult fare into the city as cross-boundary journeys weren't available. This situation was echoed all over the country, with councils not getting involved with cross-boundary entitlement as it would mean greater reimbursement to operators, using funds they simply did not have available.

This aspect will, of course, be resolved in England from 1 April 2008, but the revenue given to bus operators will not. Many local authorities, in readiness for an even bigger increase in concessionary travel than that witnessed in April 2006, are sticking rigidly to the new rules regarding the term 'off-peak' in the forthcoming legislation. It has, since April 2006 meant after 0930hrs, though a large number have improved on this either offering free concessionary travel at all times or a reduction in the full adult fare before 0930hrs. For example in June 2006, 114 local authorities went above and beyond the minimum requirement of the current scheme and were offering free travel at all times.

The new legislation, however, classifies 'off-peak' as between 0930-2300 weekdays and at all times during weekends. Concessions in Lincolnshire and Darlington are just two examples of passengers who have enjoyed free travel at all times but from 1 April 2008 will not, as a result of local authorities tightening their purse-strings.

Taking Lincolnshire as a specific example, many people holiday along the Lincolnshire Coast, between Skegness and Mablethorpe. At the moment passengers not resident in Lincolnshire must pay the full adult bus fare for the local journey they make; from 1 April 2008 they are entitled to travel for free, yet it is local authority East Lindsey district council who has to foot the bill for a sizable chunk of South Yorkshire travelling in its area, when the equivalent proportion will not migrate Sheffield-bound to travel for free in SYPTE's area.

This, of course, shouldn't concern concessionary pass holders too much; after all the implementation of free local travel throughout England from 1 April is part of the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill 2007, a piece of legislation now set-in-stone. Although the Secretary of State for Transport does have the power to "alter the administrative arrangements of the Scheme" anything less than being offered now would be political suicide.

Local bus travel does not include travel on National Express coach services, though we understand that in areas of Cornwall, where certain National Express coach services do act as local bus services, free travel will be available.