I was approached by the Association of British Commuters last week, asking if I had ever made a post on Concessionary Bus Passes. I knew I'd mentioned them many times, but a quick search suggested I had never made a dedicated post on them. So here goes, and I think I could possibly break my own fairly impressive record of upsetting more people with one post than ever before!
For those who don't know I have a Bus Pass due to my eye condition, which is variable, particularly affecting me at night, in unfamiliar territory. So I speak as a pass holder, not a jealous bystander or someone who has never had to rely solely on public transport in the past.
First some background history. The National Concession Transport Scheme (NCTS) was introduced in April 2008, extending the provision of free bus travel within local authorities to allow travel throughout England. Prior to that, local authorities had various schemes. I remember Kent issuing half fare passes which cost an annual fee - one fee applied after 0900, and if you wanted to travel before that our pass would cost more. I'm told Suffolk and Norfolk had similar schemes. What I don't know well enough to discuss is how the bus operators were compensated, if at all, as the data gathering technology we have today just wasn't there in those days.
It is worth noting at this time that London has different rules. The London Freedom Pass has been around for many years, and is covered by the GLA Act 1999.
The first point that immediately comes to mind is that the word "National" in NCTS is entirely misleading. Yes, the 2007 Act dictates basic requirements of the Travel Concession Authorities (TCA'S, or Councils to us), ie that free bus travel is to be provided between the hours of 0930 - 2300 Monday - Friday, and at anytime weekends, and that there should be no charge for the passes, but then the Act turns into a free for all, no pun intended, by allowing each TCA to offer additional benefits, eg free travel for the disabled before 0930, or reduced fares pre 0930. This has led to utter confusion, particularly for the disabled, as to where you can use your pass and when, particularly before 0930. As part of my research for this post I looked for a guide as to which TCA permits what and when, but to no avail. It seems you have to search authority by authority, which is a minefield of confusing websites, which considering the passes are for the elderly and disabled makes little sense.
Some offer free travel for the disabled before 0930, others don't, and Surrey County Council are proposing to cut their funding for pre 0930 travel next year, which is what triggered the debate and this post. I imagine others will follow, despite the Chancellor's assertion in his Budget that "austerity was at an end". This announcement by SCC has caused outrage and consternation among the disabled folk of Surrey, but are they right to be outraged? Let's explore why the passes were introduced in the first place.
As I have already stated, prior to 2008 there were no free passes for anyone outside of London. If you were elderly or disabled you got half fare, if you were lucky, and had to pay an annual fee for your pass. NCTS was created to get those people out of their homes more often. It wasn't to make it cheaper for people to get to work, or even hospital. It was designed for leisure travel, to get bums on off peak seats, to hopefully give the bus industry a lifeline by subsidising passengers instead of routes, to encourage operators to use initiative to boost passenger numbers instead of relying on route subsidy. Sadly, in 2010 that all changed with a new regime and austerity. Reimbursement fell, routes were culled anyway, and those very people the passes were created for lost the services they used them on.
I have been in regular contact with the Association of British Commuters since May of this year, when the debacle of the May 20th rail timetable happened. They know that I champion disabled travel and access. I clearly remember one bus manager's face, who having proudly shown me around one of his new buses, complete with USB chargers, went pale when I asked him where the charging point was for the wheelchair bay. I am for disability equality in all forms, but sometimes with equality comes some things we don't like. Why shouldn't disabled people pay like everyone else before 0930? That would be true equality wouldn't it? Arguments include that just existing as a disabled person costs more. That's why benefits such as Disability Living Allowance etc exist, which the able bodied don't receive. It also only seems to be those in wheelchairs complaining, I've heard nothing from the blind, deaf, or those with invisible disabilities. The entire bus fleet of the UK has been altered in the last 20 years to rightfully accommodate wheelchairs. So why shouldn't the occupants pay their way before 0930? Everyone else has to, and I'd much rather see the money spent on that used to subsidise the services they are using the passes on. No, I'm not having a go at wheelchair users, Lord knows they have it tough, especially on the railways, but if they are on a bus before 0930, with everyone else then they should pay something, like everyone else - me included. Equality is equality, not just when it suits you. Another argument I've heard is that hospital patients currently using their pass for free will switch to more expensive to provide free hospital transport. I am well aware that if you are on certain benefits you get fares to and from hospital refunded, so no excuse there, I'm afraid.
Speaking of the railways a disabled Railcard costs £20 a year, and although there are time limits you only get a third off, and fares are higher before 0930, especially if travelling locally ,when you can't book in advance.
Of course, and I know what you're thinking, I've avoided the big issue, which is the cut in funding for the scheme. Since 2010 some 3,500 bus routes have been lost, and the amount of reimbursement for operators, who are legally obliged to accept the pass, has been slashed. The pass was introduced by a Labour Government in 2008, and severely affected by the austerity policies of the Conservative Government in 2010. One gave, the other snatched away, but because the Bus Pass was set in legislation they couldn't abandon the scheme. It's even more entrenched in Law now, the irony being there are now far fewer buses to use them on. Looking at forthcoming Council budgets that trend will continue - Suffolk CC are even thinking of doing away with timetables at bus stops. Won't be that long before they're not needed anyway at this rate.
The good people of Surrey should count themselves lucky they have buses to complain about having to pay on. There are now vast swathes of the country where people have a bus pass, but precious few buses to use them on, and that wasn't the idea behind the scheme. However, and here's where I break my record, the operators haven't exactly helped themselves either. Several operators I know of give reduced fares pre 0930 to pass holders. How often have you seen that publicised? You'd think it would make sense to encourage them on before 0930, as even with a reduction it's a fair bet that the operator would make more money from that journey than they get reimbursed from the TCA. I'm sure it's on the various websites, but as I said before - you're dealing with the elderly and disabled....
One local firm has worked with the community, and told them outright it couldn't afford to keep a route going if everyone used their passes all the time. That route has survived due to pass holders voluntarily paying a fare once or twice a week. It shouldn't have to be that way but it is. More operators should try working with the communities they serve, to encourage the community to help save their bus service. Wouldn't work everywhere, but you can't use a pass on a bus that doesn't run.
So now I've upset wheelchair users, Conservative supporters, operators and just about anyone else connected with transport what are the solutions? How would I sort this mess out?
The first mistake the Labour Government made (got the matching pair now) was to make the free pass, erm, free. No one realised that people would do what they wanted and go out more. The more they travelled the more the Councils had to stump up in reimbursement, and it seems the maths was done on the current loading figures of the day, not projected ones. No wonder the next Government took a deep breath and said they couldn't afford to keep the funding at that level. So, charge for the pass. If a Disabled Railcard costs £20 a year and you only get a third off, then charge £30 a year for a buss pass giving you free travel, and legislate that the money is used on bus subsidies. No pass holder I have ever asked has indicated they would object. Except a leading wheelchair disability activist last week, who went very quiet when I asked him if he would pay an annual fee to use his pass before 0930... There are over 12 million pensioners in the UK. If all of them paid £30 for a bus pass that would mean £360m extra for bus services. Per year. If that figure was announced tomorrow we would all be celebrating. Then you'd have the income from disabled passes on top. If more routes were subsidised more buses would operate, meaning more people would once again get out more often. More bus routes means more income for operators and more custom for the local economy. But at the same time operators need to work with communities so buses are run at the time people want them - there must be drivers of a certain vintage reading this who remember the busiest buses in the evenings were when the bingo halls emptied. You won't make much from two pass holders on a service, but you will if there are 20. Won't be as much as 20 fare payers, but more than 20 empty seats.
Secondly there simply must be an end to the postcode lottery. There needs to be a National standard, and if anyone wants to use their pass before 0930 then they pay more for it, like they used to in Kent. It needs to be emphasised that the pass is to encourage leisure travel, and is not for commuting. Information needs to clearer and Councils need to stop assuming that all elderly and disabled passengers not only have access to, but are also competent on the internet. Community groups and charities, such as Age UK need to be brought on board as consultants, so the potential for the Concessionary Pass can be fulfilled.
Finally, and here we board the bus with the destination "Cloud Cuckoo Land", the Government, Councils, Operators, passenger groups and yes, the passengers themselves need to work together (stop laughing) to ensure that services are provided to those who need them regardless of their post code. If the infrastructure is put in place, and is marketed, promoted, and encouraged well enough it will be used. But you won't get the elderly finding out about bus services in a quiet corner of the internet. Why isn't the local bus timetable printed in Parish Magazines, for example. Everyone needs to muck in, be honest (I warned you), and together we might, just might save the bus industry outside major towns and cities. That will benefit everyone, regardless of how they get on and off the bus. It's ironic that in years to come, the people making the cuts today, destroying the fabric of the bus network, will be the ones complaining there's no buses.
The Concessionary Bus Pass was, and still is a great idea, but right now its framework and financing is not what was intended. Until that is returned passengers will continue to lose services, operators money, and everyone will lose when everyone, so easily, could win.