Norfolk faces extra �800k bill for bus fares

A multi-million pound funding gap for covering the cost of concessionary bus fares in Norfolk is set to grow by at least �800,000 next year, heaping even more pressure on funding for rural transport.

A multi-million pound funding gap for covering the cost of concessionary bus fares in Norfolk is set to grow by at least �800,000 next year, heaping even more pressure on funding for rural transport.

And Norfolk County Council bosses have revealed the figure could be even greater if an agreement cannot be struck with bus operators to limit how much they are reimbursed for ferrying bus pass holders about.

This year the government allocation to the county council of �7.3m was �4.5m short of the �11.8m cost of paying back bus companies for running the concessionary travel scheme.

The county council and bus operators agreed to share some of that shortfall by limiting the amount the bus companies were reimbursed to �10m, but it has still placed a �3m burden on council tax payers and a strain on other services, including rural transport support.

There are 180,000 pass holders in Norfolk and the shortfall means the county council has already axed an extra discretionary hour which previously saw pass holders get free travel from 8.30am, rather than the current 9.30am.

Now, a report to the county council's cabinet looking at next year's concessionary fares scheme has revealed an increase in the number of people using bus passes, coupled with inflation, is likely to add �800,000 to costs.

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And council officers warn the costs could be even higher unless a 'fixed pot' - a limit on how much the council reimburses bus companies - is agreed by every bus operator in Norfolk.

The council is hoping to cap that at �11m, but officers concede they might not be able to reach an agreement and would need to negotiate hard on a reimbursement rate.

Added difficulties the council will face when trying to negotiate with the bus operators this year are that the industry is set to be hit by cuts to Bus Service Operators Grants and rising fuel prices.

The county council has, through its Fair Fares campaign, been calling on the government to come up with a fairer way to cover the cost of reimbursing the bus companies.

The current system leaves dozens of local councils out of pocket and Devon County Council and Buckinghamshire County Council have both pledged support for Norfolk's lobbying.

Graham Plant, cabinet member for planning and transportation, said: 'We have had sympathetic noises from the government, which is encouraging, and I am hopeful that we will see a fairer funding allocation for next year.

'But we haven't received it yet, and this report to cabinet shows what the situation will be if there is no improvement in government support.

'In the end, any significant shortfall in funding puts other services, particularly rural public transport, under greater strain.

'I have no doubt that our Fair Fares campaign has helped bring that message home to ministers, and it is tremendous news that the number of petition signatures is around 12,000.

'I am delighted that other authorities, such as Buckinghamshire, are giving their full backing. I do feel that things are moving in our favour and that the government will respond.

'In the meantime, we have to let bus operators have our draft scheme for next year by the beginning of December, and until we get an improved settlement we have to plan for government support to remain much the same as for this year.'

Brandon Lewis, MP for Great Yarmouth, recently secured a debate on the issue in the House of Commons where transport minister Norman Baker acknowledged Norfolk's problem, while Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, in a recent interview with the EDP, described the system as 'a complete dog's breakfast'.

Mr Lewis said of the latest prediction for the cost to Norfolk County Council, that it was more fuel for the Fair Fares campaign. He said; 'I have written to the relevant minister to chase him up on this very issue. The government does accept that there is an issue, but the problem is any new formula they do come up with will take a while to come through.'

The report will be discussed at a meeting of the county council's ruling Conservative cabinet on Monday.

Because the draft scheme has to be published to bus companies by December 1 and the final scheme by March next year, officers are recommending that delegated powers to approve those schemes be given to Mr Plant.

People can sign the county council petition at any county council library or at either King's Lynn or Norwich bus stations.

Alternatively, they can sign the e-petition by visiting

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