Pressure mounts over Norfolk’s missing �3m

Extra pressure is to be mounted on the government to stop Norfolk from being �3m out of pocket because of the cost of paying bus operators for free bus travel for thousands of pensioners.

Norfolk County Council took over responsibility in April for paying bus companies back for free travel by concessionary bus pass holders, but has been fighting ever since for more money to cover that cost.

The council gets �7.2m to reimburse the bus companies, but the cost of paying them is just over �10m, leaving the council short-changed.

By comparison, Essex received �15.4m, Hertfordshire �11.1m and Suffolk �7.4m.

To save money, Norfolk County Council has already ditched an extra discretionary hour, which had been offered when the district councils were responsible for concessionary fares.

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That means bus pass holders can no longer use their passes for free travel from 8.30am - it is valid only from 9.30am until 11.30pm.

In May, council bosses and MPs lobbied transport minister Norman Baker to make up the shortfall, but have yet to get any extra cash and that means money which could otherwise be used on public transport improvements is being swallowed up to pay for concessionary travel.

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But Graham Plant, cabinet member for planning and transportation, said the council was about to ramp up the battle for a fair funding deal.

He said: 'I am hoping it is not a closed door. We had a good conversation with Norman Baker. My argument is that the government have imposed concessionary fares upon us so we will do it, but they should give us the right funding to enable us to do that.

'We will continue to chase them and we hope from that meeting we had that they will offer us more money. We are waiting with bated breath.'

Tracy Jessop, assistant director for travel and transport at Norfolk County Council said: 'We do not believe it is sustainable to have taken so much money out of local government but to continue to maintain the free travel scheme.' She said figures showed that, on the Coasthopper service in North Norfolk, 50pc of passengers were bus pass holders, of which just 37pc were from Norfolk, with the other 63pc tourists from out of the county.

Ms Jessop said: 'They are using the buses for tourism, which is great for the county, but it means the public transport budget is effectively subsidising economic development activity.'

At a meeting of the county council cabinet scrutiny committee this week, councillors asked whether contributions could be sought from tourist attractions which benefit from the bus fares, or if it was possible for bus pass holders to make a voluntary payment.

Marie Strong, Liberal Democrat councillor for Wells division, said: 'Tourist attractions benefit immensely from the Coasthopper, so maybe it is time they coughed up something towards it.

'I have had so many people coming to me, including from parish councils, saying that people would be prepared to pay something towards their fares - maybe a pound each,'

Jim Shrimplin, Conservative councillor for East Flegg, agreed. He said: 'A lot would be prepared to pay a bit a year - say �20 to �30 - so the government should be looking at that.

But Ms Jessop said: 'It would be illegal for us to charge a fare and as a council we cannot coerce a passholder to pay. It's their choice as to whether they show their pass or not.'

Paul Morse, leader of the Liberal Democrat group and chairman of the scrutiny committee said: 'It's a classic example where national politicians do not live in the real world. 'It's not fair and it's not sustainable and we really should ram that home to central government.'

Ms Jessop said: 'We will be regrouping and planning what to do. We have given ourselves a target of October to make some noise.'

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