Crunch decision due on free blind bus travel in Norfolk

A crunch decision on whether to rethink a move which stopped blind people from using their bus passes to travel to work for free before 9.30am will be made next week.

Norfolk County Council took over responsibility in April for the administration of concessionary bus travel, but the authority, facing a gap of �4.5m between what the government gives it to reimburse bus operators and the actual cost of the scheme, cut the hours bus pass holders can get free travel.

The statutory minimum is from 9.30am until 11pm on weekdays, but district councils had previously offered an extra, discretionary hour from 8.30am until 9.30am when travel was free.

Blind people have said the decision to take away that extra hour placed them at a disadvantage, with many relying on buses before 9.30am to get them to work, to hospital appointments, to college or to get around the shops before they were too busy.

Chris Maule-Oatway who works for the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind, and is registered blind, was joined by Emily Papaleo from the Royal National Institute for the Blind and Mark Harrison, from the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, in presenting evidence to a meeting of the council's cabinet scrutiny committee last month.

The committee heard officers say that the legal advice was that the council could not make a special exemption for blind people, because there was a risk of a legal challenge.

But councillors pointed out other councils in Britain had done just that and had, so far, not found themselves in court. They referred the decision back to cabinet for a rethink to consider restoring free travel for blind pass holders and companions of disabled pass holders who cannot travel alone.

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The cabinet will meet next Tuesday to consider whether to do so and a number of options are being put forward, including offering blind bus pass holders free travel between 8.30am and 9.30am at a cost to the council of �30,000 and companion bus holders free travel between those times at a cost of �20,000.

But in the report, officers state that, while they are aware of other councils which do offer eligible disabled pass holders extra hours when passes can be used: 'This council's view is that it would be unfair and unjustifiable to do so as blind pass holders are no more prejudiced by the changes than any other group who have had this discretionary benefit withdrawn.'

The report which will go before councillors also warns: 'Any additional discretionary enhancements will add costs to the scheme. The source of the funding will be a cost pressure and resources will need to be identified from within the council.'

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