Does anyone know a great deal about transport, and in particular funding for concessionary bus fares (free ones for older people especially)? I have almost literally no expertise in this area but will need to acquire some kind of working knowledge within the next month, and a number of things have been suggested to me and I’m trying to make sense of them so that I don’t look like a muppet in conversation with members or, indeed, other staff. Here are things I am being told, and finding it difficult to reconcile – I’d welcome some input.
- The Department for Communities and Local Government don’t know for sure how much money they have given each Council to pay for concessionary fares, so can’t work out how to make the funding formula fair. This seems to be a problem in particular at the seaside, where Councils find themselves paying for the free bus fares of pensioners on holiday, rather than their local citizens (that sort of thing must be a bigger problem for small coastal councils than just bus fares, I guess?). Didn’t someone do a calculation at some point? Can’t you take it out of the formula and play ‘spot the difference’?
- Bus operators are simultaneously accused of being rapaciously greedy in their demands (and in fairness a friend who works in the industry has told me some amusing stories about how they maximise income from public subsidy) yet at the same time are making relatively low profits. Apparently this is down to cost inflation of almost 10% – why do they have this at a time when pay and fuel prices are falling? Is it the fault of regulation, or is it overblown?
- Should we be moving to smartcards so that we can effectively measure the number of people using bus services – there seems to be a faustian pact between government and bus operators at present in which they can massage their figures to get more subsidy, while government looks good for hitting targets to increase public transport use, but in fact the journeys might never have been made. How much does a smartcard reader costs, and would we need to help smaller operators with the initial installation costs?
- Does the state paying “the fare” for a passenger’s journey cause inflation for paying customers? It seems to me that for a route serving an estate where public transport is mainly a preserve of old people could push up fares almost inexorably if that is the deal. Say that of 50 passengers 40 are pensioners, what is the bus operator’s incentive to charge £1 a ticket if they could charge £2 – they will get at least £80 even if all the fare-paying passengers switch to private transport. This feels similar to the problem I have with the Local Housing Allowance changes in the budget. Do we pay the price for two singles if someone is taking a return journey which would be cheaper bought that way – I guess we must do as there’s no way to measure it, but honestly, I don’t know!
A wider question, which I think I am more qualified to answer, is where people think this fits in the ‘hierarchy of locality’ that determines whether people will or will not cry ‘postcode lottery’. I know there’s concern on the national borders that there’s a different scheme if you’re going to, or from, towns on either side of the Welsh border, but if the funding disparities are solved by aggregating the control and funding of bus passes at the level of an LAA, MAA, PTA, region, or even England-wide, to what extent should local areas be allowed to spend more, or less, and provide a scheme with different benefits?