12 September 2009

The whole concessionary thing

We've covered the detail surrounding the English National Concessionary scheme on this blog on a few occasions. It's a controversial issue for bus operators. Instigated on 1 April 2006, free local off-peak travel was initially permissible: residents were free to travel between 0930-2300 on weekdays and at all times during weekends, but only in their local authority's area (district council, unitary authority or PTE area).

This was the precursor to the scheme that was rolled out on 1 April 2008, which in effect righted all the wrongs of its predecessor. While the 2006-8 scheme benefited hundreds and thousands of people over 60 and those registered disabled, it also inconvenienced many thousands of others, who were unlucky enough to live by the edge of their authority boundary and in whose neighbouring area was to be where their regular haunts were to be found. There were some interesting loop-holes, too, which were closed by April 2009.

Now, though, so far as the passenger is concerned (except perhaps if you live on the England-Wales or England-Scotland border) things have settled down nicely. For the bus operators and local authorities themselves, things continue to be fraught.

One of the most interesting loop-holes that was closed on 1 April this year, saw ENC pass-holders permitted to travel for free on great swathes of National Express' coach network.

The Department for Transport (DfT) allocats around £1 billion to the ENC scheme each year and this effectively is divvied up between all local authorities who are given their share to reimburse bus operators for the free trips taken. The DfT has said all along that it does not want bus operators to be any better- or worse-off as a result of the relatively new ENC scheme. Therefore, operators do not receive 100% of the adult fare for the journey each pass-holder makes.

This is Problem 1 - the amount given as reimbursement differs wildly from authority to authority. Some pay below 50%, others just under 80%. Problem 2 concerns the authorities, who simply do not have enough in their allocated budgets to reimburse the operators - even at the reduced percentages. Problem 3 sees authorities and operators located in honeypots suffering the worst - areas in with popular tourist attractions, National Parks, the seaside etc.

So bad have things got in some parts of the country, that operators have actually taken their local authority to court - and won - over the shortfall in reimbursements. In order to remedy this, and in response to a recent consultation, the DfT plans to remove the responsibility for reimbursing operators from the local authorities and entrust it to the county councils.

The consultation was issued at the start of May and elicited over 200 responses, 23% of which thought the current system was appropriate and 24% thought a centrally-administered DfT scheme would be the best way forward. Passener Focus conducted their own review of the ENC scheme; their results can be viewed by clicking here.

This leaves the issue of the discretionary concessions made by some local authorities, namely permitting travel outside the 0930-2300 weekday 'window'. In Lincolnshire, for example, all but one local authority (South Kesteven) permit un-metered free travel. If Lincs CC takes on responsibility for the ENC scheme, how will the local districts fair? How easy will it be to keep things as they are? Other discretionary concessions include taxi tokens, free local light/heavy rail travel, flat fares for children/students and in some cases reductions on ferries.

In areas that offer no discretionary concessions, travelling on buses between 0930-1000 on weekdays has become a nightmare for fare-payers since a '0930 phenomenon' has been identified.

Of the 200 responses, around 47% felt local authorities should retain the ability to establish discretionary concessions - not county councils - but 40% disagreed. 26% of respondents (virtually all bus operators) felt the ability to establish discretionary schemes should be limited to county councils only. We understand that just under one-fifth of the £1 billion made available by the DfT goes purely towards discretionary concession payments, with PTEs spending more (24%) than local authorities (12.5%).

We believe it is a step in the right direction to have fewer authorities responsible for reimbursing operators. This in itself will increase efficiencies - and perhaps remove some existing loop-holes - though could passengers lose out if they benefit from discretionary payments right now? That is something we'll have to wait to find out. The potential for ENC holders having to pay pre-0930 on weekdays may come as an afront to many, though it's the lesser of two evils - the other being having the entire scheme scrapped. (GL)