Monday, 14 January 2008

Fault lines in free bus fare scheme

Those of us over 60 or registered disabled have had the opportunity to take advantage of a scheme whereby we can use the bus service for free, at least in our own local authority area. Now the government is rolling out plans to make the process nationwide so that theoretically I could go from the Tamar Valley to Newcastle for instance without paying for a fare. (Yes I know that I would have to have accommodation on the way as I don't think our bus services are quite up to covering such a distance in one day!)

However, as with most ideas hatched in Whitehall, the scheme has practical difficulties. One of these was flagged up on the westcountry bit of yesterday's 'Politics Show' on BBC1. Understandably the powers that be don't want the free bus fare to apply during the morning commute but amazingly have set this time to be up to 9.30 am. I can't see why this shouldn't be 9 o'clock, 9.30 seems awfully late to me! However transport minister Rosie Winterton said that councils have some flexibility here and can vary the time. The programme drew attention to an anomaly at the village of Ashreigney, one of those many small habitations in what I call the forgotten part of mid Devon between Dartmoor and Exmoor. Time was when Ashreigney had sufficient shops for day to day purchases but that's all changed now. The TV item concerned a lady, a senior citizen, who has to get the bus to Torrington to do her shopping. One problem - the bus departs just before 9.30 so she has to pay full fare. But no difficulty for her friend who joins the bus at the nearby hamlet of Riddlecombe from which point the bus departs at 9.32! It has to be said that this bus isn't exactly crowded with commuters in this sparsely populated part of Devon. My impression from the report is that here is something that really needs sorting out.

Another facet of the free bus scheme which is causing a lot of worry for local councils is this: by some formula central government is allocating chunks of money to these councils which may, or may not, cover their payments to the bus companies concerned. It seems to me that for most of the normal council services it is possible within reason to estimate and keep control of their annual budgets to a reasonable extent. But, as with the 'pay as you throw' idea, the free bus fares will throw up many imponderables. One of these already mentioned is the fact that we are a holiday area in Devon and Cornwall and it wouldn't be surprising if many elderly visitors from other parts took advantage of the scheme for their travel, and why not? It will be a nightmare for our local authorities to try and get their sums right methinks.

As yet I haven't joined the scheme but must get round to doing it and reduce my car use.

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