Tax fears over free bus travel costs

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Fears are rising that council taxpayers across East Anglia will be landed with an extra six figure bill to cover the cost of free bus travel for the over 60s after a successful appeal by operators over funding rules.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Fears are rising that council taxpayers across East Anglia will be landed with an extra six figure bill to cover the cost of free bus travel for the over 60s after a successful appeal by operators over funding rules.

Bus firms across the country, including three in Norfolk, lodged more than 60 appeals with the Department of Transport about the way district councils had imposed caps on funding in the first year of the scheme

Last year the EDP revealed how firms in Norfolk said they were losing up to £10,000 a month because of the formula.

Now it has emerged that the Department for Transport has upheld most of the cases with firms likely to get a total refund of £15m - though it is not clear what impact this will have on the Norfolk scheme.

But there were hints that councils are set to go to the courts to challenge the decision in a judicial review.

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Councils across Norfolk currently paid in around £5.8m to fund around half of the scheme with Norwich and Broadland councils each contributing more than £1m and the government funding the rest.

A report by Tim Nobbs, from South Norfolk council, due to be considered by councillors on Wednesday says the victory could see costs “escalate dramatically”.

“If these were all acknowledged and reimbursed, costs of the scheme would go up dramatically, with South Norfolk's share increasing by at least £322,000,” he said. “Our consultants believed the judgment is so flawed that a judicial review could be considered.”

But he admitted that the bus companies had suffered a degree of “rough justice” because of the formula thought he added that some operators may be claiming for up to 8pc more trips than were being made.

“There have been complaints from several passengers, including a cabinet member that tickets for free fares have been issued for journeys longer than requested,” he said.

And there was criticism of bus firm First's decision not to supply detailed data about journey times and costs.

“First Bus is also the only operator not to have supplied detailed information to our consultants saying it is not a priority for them,” he added.

The authority is looking at a range of options to keep costs down including removing community transport services from the concessionary scheme and lobbying nationally for a funding overhaul.

But it is resisting calls from other Norfolk councils in to limit the free trips to journeys beginning and ending in the county, and the putting back the start time for passes until 9.30am.

Meanwhile in Suffolk, one council has written to the government calling for an urgent review of the funding situation.

Stephen Burroughs, Suffolk Coastal's cabinet member for…said the situation was “completely unfair” and the government should fund the scheme itself.

“We are anticipating the extra cost will be £180,000, which may not be much in the government's eyes but is equivalent to £3 on our council tax bills and is only £20,000 less than the increased grant for all our services,” he said. “This is the government's initiative , and it is unfair that the extra costs should be met by all our counciltaxpayers.