Norfolk County Council u-turn on free bus travel for the blind

Blind and visually impaired people in Norfolk will be able to get round the clock free bus travel, after an 11th hour change of heart by council leaders.

Norfolk County Council, which last April took over responsibility from district councils for concessionary bus travel, had removed an extra morning hour of free bus travel for pass holders.

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 pass holders can get free travel, so people had to wait until after 9,30am and could not travel for free before 8.30am.

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 around shops before they got too busy.

The council's cabinet scrutiny committee urged their leaders to think again, but the controlling Conservative cabinet had said, based on legal advice, it could not make an exception for the blind, because that might lead to a legal challenge from other groups.

However, at today's meeting of the full council, council leader Derrick Murphy, pictured, announced a way had been found to fund 24-hour bus travel for the blind and visually impaired, along with companion passes for eligible disabled people.

Mr Murphy said, because blind and visually impaired people had been especially disadvantaged and already lose out on other benefits because of inequalities, it was the 'right thing to do' to spend �51,000 to ensure they and companions could get free bus travel.

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He said: 'We have listened carefully to all the arguments put forward, including representations from the Norfolk and Norwich Association of the Blind and the Royal National Institute for the Blind and members of our cabinet scrutiny committee.

'It is clear to us that blind and visually impaired concessionary travel pass holders have been especially disadvantaged by the loss of these discretionary enhancements and experience more disadvantages than other groups because of inequalities in benefit provision and social care eligibility.

'Few blind people can claim the higher rate mobility component of the Disability Living allowance, which is worth an extra �30 a week.

'This is a significant amount to people who are often on low incomes and who face the additional costs of being disabled. Blind and visually impaired people often have the same or greater need for support with travel.

'What's more, many blind and visually impaired people cannot claim support with transport through a Personal Budget. Having considered these special factors, I am convinced that, as a listening and caring council that is trying to help as many people as possible with our limited resources, restoring the 24 hour pass and reintroducing companion passes is the right thing to do.'

Chris Maule-Oatway, from the Norfolk and Norwich Association of the Blind, which has campaigned for the free travel, said: 'We are delighted. We always felt if we plugged away they would listen.'

A spokesman for the charity added: 'As a charity representing 20,000 blind and visually impaired people in Norfolk, we are delighted at this decision which will restore dignity and independence to those who rely on bus transport in their everyday lives.

'This change of heart shows that councillors are prepared to listen to reasoned argument and accept our assertion that their original decision was having a disproportionate impact on blind people.

'Allowing registered blind people to travel without cost before 9.30am will make a massive difference to those who are working, those who need to get to college or courses and for those who have early hospital appointments or want to shop while stores are less busy.

'We are proud to have championed this issue on behalf of some of Norfolk's most vulnerable people, and pleased that even in these challenging financial times there is a place not just for compassion but for common sense among our councillors.'

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