Headlines: February 27th, 2008

Local authorities in seaside resorts, tourist areas and popular shopping locations fear they will not be able to meet the cost of providing free bus travel for pensioners when the national extension of concessionary fares comes into force. A study carried out by the Local Government Association has highlighted the extent of the problem facing some councils and it is calling for a review of the way the scheme is funded.

Pensioners and disabled people already benefit from
concessions in their local council areas but from April the scheme is being extended to allow them to travel free anywhere in England . The LGA says that while that will benefit millions of people it will leave a number of councils footing most of the bill.

Its analysis shows that authorities in areas that attract visitors fear they will be hardest hit with some councils facing shortfalls in funding of up to 1.8 million pounds to deliver the scheme. The LGA figures show that unless changes are made Brighton and Hove City Council faces a shortfall of 1.79 million pounds, Harrogate’s shortfall could be more than three-quarters of a million and among popular shopping destinations Nottingham faces a 1.65 million pound bill.

The LGA is calling on the Treasury to look again at its figures for how much money is going to individual councils to pay for the scheme. Without this, it says, authorities threatened with the biggest funding gaps could face tough choices between spending cuts and above inflation council tax rises.

David Sparks, Chairman of the LGA Regeneration and Transport Board, said the free travel scheme would give many people the freedom to visit the country’s popular seaside and historic areas. “Authorities along the coastline or in places popular with visitors could be forced to cut meals on wheels to pay for visiting pensioners’ free bus travel. Councils want free bus travel for the elderly and disabled but the Treasury must make sure it is not at the cost of vital services or an increase in council tax.”