Norfolk’s bus fares fight goes national
Norfolk's battle to get �4.5m from the government to cover the cost of concessionary bus travel has gone national, with other councils joining the fight for fair funding.
More than 7,600 people have signed Norfolk County Council's Fair Fares petition, which calls for the government to properly cover the cost of reimbursing bus companies for ferrying bus pass holders around.
And the campaign is gathering traction, with Devon County Council officially joining the campaign and two other councils, in the north and south east of the country, indicating they are keen to follow suit.
The Campaign for Better Transport has also lent its backing to the aims of the Fair Fares initiative and the Local Government Association transport group has sent strong support.
Council bosses say the support of other councils and transport groups would strengthen the message to government that it is not fair to keep short-changing local authorities.
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Graham Plant, cabinet member for planning and transportation at Norfolk County Council, said: 'One of our key roles is to speak up on behalf of Norfolk people and I feel having councils up and down the country on our side on Fair Fares can only increase our chances of being heard at Westminster.
'We have made a fantastic start, with 7,500 names already collected, which is a magnificent response from the people of Norfolk. But if our e-petition grows in future, with interest from around the country, that can only be to the good.
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'I do hope more councils will come on board in the coming weeks, because the unfairness of the current situation is there for all to see. If, by speaking out for Norfolk, we can prompt a fairer outcome for rural councils up and down the country generally, I will be absolutely delighted.'
Stuart Hughes, Devon County Council cabinet member for highways and transportation, said of his authority's decision to back Norfolk's fight: 'We're lending our full backing to this campaign and we're pleased that MPs are debating this issue.
'Rural authorities like Devon and Norfolk are suffering the most, but councils right across the country are facing the same difficulties in funding this scheme.'
Support has come, too, from David Rowlands, chairman of the Local Government Association public transport consortium special interest group and a member of Buckinghamshire County Council.
He said: 'We represent 33 shire and unitary authorities, and the pressures caused by inadequate funding are plain for us to see.
'It is important that government works out quickly, how it can fairly fund the mandatory scheme so no council is left short.'
The Campaign for Better Transport has also backed the call, fearing that further cuts to bus services will happen if councils continue to be short-changed.
The shortfall of �4.5m exists because the county council only receives �7.7m from the government to pay back bus companies for the older and disabled people who use bus passes get free off-peak travel in Norfolk, yet the cost of reimbursing those companies is �11.6m.
There are 180,000 passholders in Norfolk and the shortfall means the county council has already axed an extra discretionary hour which previously saw passholders get free travel from 8.30am, rather than the current 9.30am.
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.
He said: 'It is brilliant to see the Fair Fares campaign is being supported by councils all over the country.
'Although Norfolk is particularly badly affected, it is important that we remember that this is a national issue affecting ordinary people across the country. It is important we continue to work hard on this important issue.'
Councillors and officers have been out collecting signatures at a series of consultation events on cuts to rural transport.
More than 160 people signed the petition in King's Lynn on Tuesday and 130 in Long Stratton on Wednesday.
County councillors will be taking to the streets today to encourage more people to sign up to the campaign.
Ann Steward, cabinet member for economic development and county councillor for Swaffham, will be at Swaffham Market Place from 10am until midday.
Judy Leggett, county councillor for Old Catton, collected more than 70 signatures at Morrison's supermarket in Old Catton, yesterday (Friday) afternoon and has collected about 160 in total.
The e-petition can be signed via the front page of the county council's website at www.norfolk.gov.uk, at county council libraries or at Norwich and King's Lynn bus stations.