07 May 2009

Free concession scheme overhaul

The government has announced that it plans to review the current Free Concessionary Travel scheme in England, with a view to an administration overhaul.

The basics are expected to be kept the same, i.e. the minimum requirements being 0930-2300 weekdays and at all times weekends; however the way in which the scheme is currently administered is likely to come under close scrutiny.

The main concern from local authorities and bus/coach operators alike is that they have been left out-of-pocket, following the scheme's inception in April 2007. One LEYTR operator told us he is receiving just 50% of the adult fare for the journey made by concessions in one of the local authorities in our area. Compare this to over 70% in other areas of England - and both Wales and Scotland - it can be seen that operators do form part of a post code-style lottery for reimbursements.

Of course local authorities claim they've been given insufficient funds from the Department for Transport (DfT). The £1 billion allocated annually by the DfT for the free scheme is not ring-fenced, and so some authorities could choose to use their allocated reimburement money to, say, give the bin men their pay rise.

One option of reform being considered is that county councils operate the free travel schemes on behalf of the local authorities, and thus cut a certain amount of red tape and ensure a more uniform level of reimbursement in their respective counties. Another option is that the DfT themselves take on the responsibility of reimbursing operators directly. The Welsh Assembly and Scottish Governments both operate their schemes in a similar way.

Transport Minister Paul Clark said: "We are confident that there is enough money in the system, but we need to ensure the right structures are in place to administer it. I look forward to hearing people's views on how to guarantee that pass holders get the most out of this billion pound scheme and concessionary travel remains sustainable for the future."

Perhaps one thing Mr Clark would consider altering is the recent situation that arose in which the Isles of Scilly - which has no bus services - was awarded £51,000 to cover the costs of reimbursing the islands' bus operators for providing the non-existent bus services! (GL)