Fight stepped up to get back Norfolk’s missing millions
The fight to get a better deal for Norfolk over concessionary bus fares will today be stepped up with the launch of a new campaign backed by MPs and bus companies.
And leaders at Norfolk County Council have warned that if the �4.5m shortfall in funding for the scheme, which gives pass holders free bus travel, is not plugged, rural bus services could suffer.
At County Hall today, following a debate about the issue, the council will launch a 'Fair Fares'' campaign calling on the government to properly fund the scheme.
The campaign, which will see petitions placed on buses around the county, is being backed by MPs, bus companies, business bosses, councillors and campaigners for rural areas, who say Norfolk deserves a better deal.
Under the concessionary bus pass scheme, eligible older and disabled people are entitled to free off-peak travel on the buses. There are about 180,000 pass-holders in the county.
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The government says the council has to provide pass-holders with free bus travel between 9.30am and 11pm in the week and all day at weekends and public holidays.
The county council has to reimburse bus operators so they are no worse off for having carried bus pass holders.
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But the cost of that is �11.6m, outstripping the �7.2m the government has given the county council to pay bus operators.
Derrick Murphy, leader of Norfolk County Council, said: 'We strongly support the principle of the concessionary bus fare scheme, but the government simply must give us the tools to do the job.
'It's completely unfair that taxpayers in Norfolk are being saddled with a huge bill for a scheme at a time when funding for rural transport is under such extreme pressure.
'We need to send a strong message to Westminster that this unfair system simply can't continue.'
As well as the Fair Fares petition on bus and online, the county council has joined up with Great Yarmouth Conservative MP Brandon Lewis to raise the issue in the House of Commons. Mr Lewis has secured a Westminster Hall debate on rural buses on Tuesday, October 11 to help highlight the county's plight.
He said: 'I am a passionate supporter of the bus service in Norfolk; in a rural county such as ours, it is a vital life line to many hundreds of people in Great Yarmouth and thousands in Norfolk as a whole.
'However the current framework which the coalition government has inherited from the previous government is unsustainable and has the potential to create a perverse situation where councils are paying to provide passes to residents who will not have any buses to use them on.
'I am supporting this campaign, as I feel it is essential that ministers, especially Norman Baker MP, understand how serious this situation is.
'It is important that the campaign is backed by residents. We need to show that Norfolk people value and care about their bus service, so I would encourage everyone to sign the petition.'
The petition will be launched outside County Hall following today's council meeting, where a giant bus ticket demanding the return of �4.5m of funding to Norfolk taxpayers will be displayed against a backdrop of double-decker buses.
The impact of the funding gap this year was reduced to �3m after the county council worked with bus operators to reduce the subsidies it pays them.
But next year there will be less opportunity for negotiation, with bus companies set to be hit with an increase in fuel duty.
Bus operators across Norfolk, including First, Anglian, Konect, Sanders, Simonds and Norfolk Green have backed the campaign.
Ben Colson, managing director of Norfolk Green, which runs buses in West Norfolk and along the North Norfolk coast, said: 'The shortfall of funding from central government to the county to implement what is a central government social policy is affecting payments to us, which are falling all the time.
'We are getting close to a point where some buses, even full ones, will make a loss and this is something we cannot sustain without being forced, unfairly, to increase fares for other age groups, especially those between 16 and 24 which make up the majority of our fare-paying customers.
'Government has to listen and accept that they have got it wrong, and take urgent steps to put it right.'
If the government agrees to plug the funding gap, the county council has promised to invest the money to support public transport priorities.
The Fair Fares online petition can be signed via the county council's website at www.norfolk.gov.uk and will also be available at County Hall, at bus stations in Norwich and King's Lynn and in libraries.
In addition to signing the petition, people can make their views known at the campaign's Facebook page by searching Fair Fares.
Petitions can also be downloaded from www.norfolk.gov.uk