Minister urged to give Norfolk fairer deal on concessionary fares

Transport minister Norman Baker was today urged to rethink funding free bus travel for the over 60s, which has left Norfolk around �3m out of pocket.

Mr Baker met with a delegation of MPs and Norfolk County Council officials to hear how the formula failed to take into the account the rural nature of the county.

Responsibility for the scheme rests between the Department for Transport and Communities and Local Government.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said the minister had agreed to raise the issue with his CLG counterparts .

'There was a united pitch to get the government to look at the formula again,' Mr Lamb said. 'Norfolk has been harder hit than anywhere else apart from North Yorkshire.

'The problem is that the formula doesn't recognise the rural nature of the county and is based on a average travel distance of five miles, whereas in Norfolk it is about 13 miles. The combination of low incomes and rurality makes it a particularly important issue for us.

South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon said: 'We all know there are difficult decisions to take, but the government must still produce a policy that is workable. Policy on concessionary fares must take account of very rural counties such as Norfolk, where much greater journey distances are simply a normal part of daily life, and I am not convinced that the government has yet produced a sustainable solution. I am pleased that tNorman Baker, has agreed to raise this issue with the department for communities and local government'.

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Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman said the policy was another example of rural areas being discounted.

Graham Plant, Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for travel and transport, said although the authority had managed to bring down some of the funding gap after negotiations with bus firms, the funding was still �3m short of what was needed to run the scheme.

'If we don't get the government to cover the concessionary fares, then we will have to take it from ratepayers and find which services we will have to take it from and that means someone else will be hit.'

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith said: 'We want Norfolk to get its fair deal. Everyone recognizes that the cupboard is bare, locally and nationally, but we got a fair hearing today and I hope there can be consideration for the many people who need to use concessionary travel – whether that's elderly people, or disabled people including people who are blind or partially sighted, or accompanying carers.'

Frontline services in Norfolk could suffer unless the government plugs a multi-million pound funding gap to pay for free bus travel, council bosses have warned.

Norfolk County Council says it has been short-changed to the tune of up to �4.5m by the government on the amount it has been handed to reimburse bus operators for free bus travel for pensioners - with the authority saying the �7.2m awarded is not enough to cover a bill which could be as high as �11.7m.

And with vital decisions looming through the council's Big Conversation, the council is warning failure to plug the gap could have 'far-reaching consequences for other frontline services.'

The council already needs to make �155m worth of savings over the next three years and its Big Conversation consultation has proposed cuts to services such as meals on wheels, school transport, prevention services for elderly people, youth services and school crossing patrols,

But a further �4.5m funding gap could see more services cut and the council is lobbying the Department for Transport over what it hopes is an 'oversight and error' and is urging a rapid response, given the council needs to take budget decisions next month.

The blackhole has arisen because Norfolk County Council is taking over responsibility for paying bus operators back for concessionary bus fares - which includes free bus travel for pensioners - from the district councils.

But the county council says it has not been given enough to cover it, because a special grant of �4.8m paid to the districts which helped cover the costs has not been transferred to County Hall.

Graham Plant, county council cabinet member for travel and transport, has written a letter to Norman Baker, junior transport minister, urging him to resolve the problem.

He said: 'It's a not inconsiderable sum. The shortfall could be as much as �4.5m and it comes at a time when we have got the Big Conversation going on and we need to set our budgets.

'The earlier this is flagged the better, particularly as it has such a bearing on decisions that will be made on the funding of local front-line services in the next four weeks.

'If it is the government's wish that we continue with the concessionary fares, we need to be fairly funded to make sure we are no better or worse off as a result.'

He said if it was not resolved, it 'leaves us in a very difficult position.'

The council has already indicated it cannot afford to offer any more than the minimum concessionary scheme, which will mean that concessionary bus pass-holders will lose an extra hour of free travel which had been offered in the mornings.

Holders had been granted an extra hour, at the discretion of district councils in Norfolk, to use their passes between 8.30am and 9.30am.

But the county is almost certain to get rid of that hour so passes can only be used between 9.30am and 11pm Monday to Friday and at all times at weekends.

Chloe Smith, Norwich North Tory MP, said she would speak to ministers about the issue and supported the county council's lobbying. She said: 'Nobody wants to see Norfolk getting short-changed. It is far too important at a time when decisions are being made which could have a great impact on pensioners and therefore I am pleased to see the county council is pressing for a fair deal.

'I will be speaking to ministers as I want to see what is behind this.'

When the EDP contacted the Department for Transport for a comment, it said formula grant queries should be addressed to the Department for Communities and Local Government.

A spokesman at The Department for Communities and Local Government said that while he was sure the letter would be considered as part of the consultation taking place on the local government finance settlement, because it was addressed to a transport minister, it was the Department for Transport who would have to respond.

However, between them, the two departments said there had recently been consultation on how concessionary bus fares would be distributed and that from April next year all funding for the scheme would be provided through formula grants - to give local authorities 'the freedom and flexibility they want in their use of funding'.

A spokesman added that: 'Councils may have some tough decisions ahead, but we are giving them the means to protect frontline services with significant new freedoms to share services, increase transparency and put everything they do under the spotlight.'

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