No, it isn’t a children’s bedtime story. Rather, a tale of passion, politics and the good old travelling public – with a bit of potential skulduggery thrown in for good measure.
As their Lordships debate the upcoming Buses Bill, Baroness McIntosh made the sort of suggestion that might have gotten her thrown in the dungeons hundreds of years previous.
In reference to the great concessionary fares debate;
“For me, the game-changer would be one simple thing: to keep concessionary fares on rural bus services but allow those eligible to pay a contribution.”
Sound reasonable? The former MP for Thirsk & Malton was reacting to what seems to be the perennial discussion about the lack of money in the kitty to keep rural bus services going. “What’s the point in having a “free” bus pass if there’s no bus service to use it on” seems to be the mantra for our age, if you have any interest in rural transport.
I placed the article on my Facebook page and awaited the much-expected fireworks. I wasn’t disappointed. Around 80-odd comments later, I’d managed to gain repetitive-strain injury to my typing finger, someone spectacularly telling me he was fed up with it all and blocking me (!) and someone accusing the Government of punishing senior citizens for Brexit. Ah, the crazy World of social media.
What all this Facebook shenanigans does prove though, is the almighty mess that the Government has gotten itself into with the concessionary pass – and how it will be anything but simple politically to dig itself out of it.
Ah, you cry! The Government already thought of that – by handing the little issue of paying for it all down to local authorities. A classic bit of political manoeuvring Sir Humphrey himself might be proud of. Nowt to do with us, Guv. The authorities need to manage their budgets better. But whatever the situation now, the fact remains that somewhere, somehow, this issue is going to have to be addressed. The cost of giving senior citizens “free” bus travel simply isn’t sustainable in the long-term.
Let me make one thing very clear – lest I am accused of being “anti” concessionary pass. I support the concept whole-heartedly. It is what a civilised society should do. “It’s all very well taking away something from others that you don’t need yourselves. Sorry, Mr Tonks.” roared one individual on the Facebook thread, mistakenly presuming I’m someone who thinks it shouldn’t be provided. Sadly, one thing I AM convinced of, is that it won’t be there when I reach retirement age in twenty-odd years time (if we even have a “retirement” age by then). The problem – of course – like many other things, is that there is a rather large funding-gap emerging, when it comes to reimbursing bus operators for providing this service.
And yet, it’s so vitally precious. You can’t put a monetary figure on what the freedom of a free bus pass brings to some elderly people. I’m sure there are number-crunchers who can say that for every £1 spent on providing the free pass, “x”-amount is beneficial to the local economy, blah,blah,blah. But what price do you put on the social benefits of being able to get out of the house and be part of society? You can’t put a price, of course. And that is reason enough to keep the concessionary pass where it is.
Former Chairman of the Transport Committee of the West Midlands County Council Phil Bateman MBE made an important point. “You need to look at this the other way round, take concessionary fares away and you will lose even more of the bus network. It’s the OAP demand that keeps networks alive. Take their travel away, or reduce it, and the impact on networks will be severe. Plus then you will also have job losses within the bus operators, that will then deliver more loss in retail in town and city centres, as less travel journeys are made”. Food for thought.
The Baroness was suggesting that pass holders might be willing to pay up to half of the fare in order to keep the service going. I’ve heard this proposal many times before, not least from pensioners themselves at Bus Users Surgeries I used to organise. But this, for me, is an unworkable half-measure. It was the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg (remember him?) back in 2011 who suggested “means-testing” for some pensioner benefits. It went down like a lead balloon. This followed an earlier report by the consultancy Oxera for the Local Government Association that concluded “Although the scheme has helped to improve social inclusion, there is also evidence that the scheme is targeted too widely, benefiting many people on higher incomes and with access to cars (i.e, those not affected by social exclusion and accessibility issues before the introduction of the scheme).”
The LGA distanced itself from the report’s findings, saying “This recommendation is problematic as it could suggest an end to the current national concession, which is a popular policy that benefits millions of people and is highly valued by councils and their communities.
“Means testing for concessionary fares is not the solution. Take up of the scheme would fall drastically, the benefits it delivers greatly reduced and administrative burdens significantly increased.”
Free off-peak bus passes in England were introduced in 2008, but almost immediately some local authorities were complaining about the shortfall in funding to pay the bus operators.
Back to the Facebook debate. One person suggested that the bus operators “are able to choose to operate within the statutory obligations, or not.” And there is the rub. They can’t. Of course they should carry pass holders, but equally, they should be paid adequate recompense for doing so. Here are commercial businesses, with rising costs year-on-year, faced with a declining amount paid for carrying a significantly large number of their passengers. What happens? They increase their fares to compensate – which leaves those that DO pay a cash fare having to stump up even more – making the bus an even less attractive proposition. But please don’t assume that I’m creating a “young v old” argument (which the media has disgracefully created, especially over the Brexit argument). I’m merely pointing out the folly of getting on a bus in Shrewsbury the other week (Border Hopping – X75 Shrewsbury – Llanidloes) and being told it’s a £12 fare, whilst many concessionary pass holders followed me on for free. No problem with that on the face of it, but the operator most certainly won’t be getting £12 for every “beep” of the concessionary pass.
And that brings us to the very heart of the debate – and the intervention by the Baroness. This becomes it’s most acute in deep rural areas. The bus routes aren’t even being operated on a commercial basis. The local authority is propping them up, and is struggling to even do that because they haven’t got the money to do so. Some have received up to 40% cuts to their budget. So if some pensioners can afford to pay, isn’t it reasonable to say so? Actually, I think it’s just unworkable. Are we talking voluntary contributions? You could just hide your pass and pay the full adult fare, but what isn’t allowed is a “pensioners special fare”. Back in 2011, the top man at East Yorkshire Motor Services, Peter Shipp, asked a similar thing. A bus route facing the axe was retained, with pensioners being urged to simply hide their passes and pay instead.
But this, and the idea of some form of “means-testing” is a ham-fisted way of trying to cope with a scheme that is increasingly unfit for purpose in the back-office. The simple truth is that it isn’t funded enough to be sustainable in the long-term. When a local authority can’t afford to subsidise a bus service any more, everyone in the community loses out. Shouldn’t we be looking at rural bus services as part of “essential infrastructure”, just like telephones, power and broadband internet access?
Are grey clouds looming for other pensioner benefits? Following the recent autumn statement, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor and Damian Green (Work & Pensions Secretary) refused to give assurances on the pensions “triple lock” beyond 2020, stating that they’d have to look at the state of the economy in 4 years time. Now this may well be a bit of mischief-making on behalf of the media – who knows what might happen by 2020? – but it’s clear that funding for all sorts of things is under threat.
The statutory concessionary bus pass is a strange beast. In the Facebook discussion, I suggested that, what if the Government said that every OAP should receive a free loaf of bread, then told Hovis et al that it was going to give them less than half the retail price for every loaf? There’d be business uproar. It’d be a good thing to do, but as with everything else, there is a price to pay. And who should pay it? Pensioners tell me that they’ve worked all of their lives and paid their taxes, and “why should I begrudge them their bus pass”? I’m most certainly not begrudging them their bus pass. I agree entirely that they deserve it, and I’m sick of saying it until I’m blue in the face. But all of us – me, you, pensioners, workers – are living in ever-changing times. Now. Whatever pensioners have worked for, whatever I’m still working for – the money, we’re told, isn’t there. The NHS is “starved of funds”, my mate’s Dad tells me he might not be able to play bowls any more because the funding has gone from the local authority to maintain the bowling green. another friend’s sister has lost her job at the local library. These are all sorry tales of a lack of funding in today’s society. I’m repeatedly calling for more money to properly fund the country’s concessionary bus pass scheme, but I fear I’m being drowned out by competing demands for that last few coins at the bottom of the empty piggy-bank.
So the story of The Baroness, The Arguments and the Bus Pass doesn’t currently have a happy ending. The concessionary bus pass is a great British benefit worth fighting for. Whether it’ll still be around in 5, 10 or 20 years – along with lifeline rural transport services – is another matter entirely.