“We spend more on concessionary travel than any other public service – waste collection, street cleaning, ground maintenance,” said Huw Bowen, Chief Executive, Chesterfield Borough Council. What an amazing statistic! This quote was taken from an article in The Guardian on 31 July.
Here is the article in full:-
The day-tripping pensioners who are costing local councils dear.
National concessionary travel scheme leaves popular destinations with bills and job losses as funding falls short.
It was sunny, so Southport was just the ticket for a spot of lunch and a bracing walk on the pier.
Except Colin and Margaret Lee didn’t need a ticket, merrily waving their concessionary passes as they hopped from Lancaster, to Preston, then to Southport and back again on their spur of the moment day trip.
Like 11 million other over-60s and disabled people, they are the winners in the highly lauded English National Concessionary Travel scheme introduced in April last year, which affords them free bus travel countrywide.
So why, then, as they stepped off the X2 Stagecoach service from Preston to Southport could the sound of gnashing teeth and rustling spread sheets be heard emanating from Preston Town Hall?
“Nothing to do with the scheme. It’s wonderful,” agreed Eric Fazackerley, deputy leader of Preston City Council. “It’s just the way it is funded.”
If there are winners, there must be losers. And more than 50 councils have now lost a total of £30m as a direct result of the scheme, according to the Local Government Association, which is calling for an urgent review of funding. A dozen of them, including Preston, are members of the One Million Club, whose shortfall exceeds £1m a year, with unexpected and often “catastrophic” consequences.
Preston’s downfall is its 80-bay “hub” bus station – allegedly the second biggest in western Europe.
“It was a friend who told us you can get to all sorts of places from Preston,” said Margaret, 71, from Glasson Dock, near Lancaster. “It’s the first time we’ve done Southport.” She and Colin, 72, plan to visit again, joining Alan and Doreen Heywood, also from Lancaster and, as regulars, on their seventh visit this year.
“It’s a wonderful service,” said Doreen, 66. “We’ve been all over. Every week we go somewhere.”
“Much better than sitting at home getting rigor mortis”, agreed Alan 75.
Each morning, dozens queue for buses at Preston bus station. But, while most of them won’t actually set foot in Preston, under the scheme local councils are legally obliged to pick up the bill for every journey that starts in their area.
“Say someone is coming from east Lancashire, wanting to go to Southport, or Blackpool, then we pay twice. We pay from Preston, where they change for Southport, or Blackpool, and then we pay from Preston back to wherever they came from. And they don’t set foot in Preston itself, except moving from one bay to another at the bus station,” said Councillor Fazackerley. “It’s ridiculous and unfair.”
The government, which insists the scheme is “fully funded”, has allocated £212m in special grants to cover shortfalls. The promise was no council should lose out. But, somehow, it isn’t reaching all the right places.
Popular seaside towns, such as Blackpool, Scarborough and the resorts of Torbay in Devon, are significantly out of pocket after paying for the departure journeys of every one of their concessionary visitors. The recession has seen an increase in uptake. And “staycations” promise it will rise yet further.
Meanwhile, transport hubs suffer without gaining any of the income day-trippers spend, or the council tax they pay at home.
Chesterfield Borough Council is in dire straits. As transport hub, it is £1.6m down, which would equate to a 37% increase in council tax for each household and, as a result, is axing 45 jobs.
“We spend more on concessionary travel than any other public service – waste collection, street cleaning, ground maintenance,” said Huw Bowen, the chief executive.
“I’ve had letters from individual senior citizens and pensioners’ groups who are really very concerned 45 jobs are being lost because of it. I tell them, it’s a good scheme in terms of social inclusion and the green agenda. It’s right you should have it. And they say: ‘We could pay half fare, if you’re able to save the jobs.’ It’s quite sad. But it doesn’t work like that.”
Torbay’s deputy mayor, Chris Lewis, believes with “smart cards” the government should be able to work out a better funding formula. Coach parties descend on Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. “But where the coach companies used to take them round the bay, now they say: ‘Go to Brixham. There’s a nice open-top bus and it’s free.’”
Queues start at 9.30am and it has cost the council £2m so far, meaning cuts in tourism promotion, as well as adult services and children’s budgets.
“It’s a very serious problem,” said Oxford City Council’s deputy leader, Ed Turner. One in five middle managers jobs are under threat to recoup the £1.1m shortfall, projected to rise to £1.7m in 2010. Of their 8 million tourists, a significant proportion from the UK are concessionary visitors. Parking revenue has dropped, funding for the municipal museum has been withdrawn, cuts have been made in civic pride projects such as Britain in Bloom and warm front initiates have suffered. “Truth is, people in Oxford are suffering because of what should be a good thing,” said Turner.
The government has now acknowledged there are problems in the way the grants are allocated. They are in consultation but that is set to last well into next year. And, affected councils worry, with many others not having the same problems – some even making a profit – there may not be support for change.
Meanwhile, those on the X2 regular Preston to Southport service were blissfully unaware of exactly who had funded half of their day trip. “We thought it was Lancashire County Council,” said Alan. “Doesn’t seem right, now you think of it”.