29 January 2006

Soap Box Sunday

"A soapbox is a raised, improvised platform on which one stands to make an impromptu speech, often about a political subject. Alternately, the word may be used to describe the box that soap comes in." Wikipedia

Daily Telegraph:
Plans to give Britain's over-60s free bus travel were in disarray last night as councils across the country complained they did not have enough money to pay for the scheme.
While the programme is going ahead smoothly in some areas, elsewhere local authorities are considering cutting other subsidies to meet the bill
. continues...

Compare the Scottish scheme as promised by the Scottish Executive
Plans for free, unrestricted national bus travel for Scotland's older people and those with disabilities was announced today. In a statement to Parliament today, Transport Minister Nicol Stephen said existing concessionary travel schemes would be expanded to unlimited Scotland-wide free bus travel, as well as two free return ferry trips a year for older and disabled residents of Scotland's islands, from April 2006. Mr Stephen said:
"From 2006 all older and disabled people will be entitled to Scotland-wide free bus travel.
"The Executive made this commitment last year and today we are delivering. The new scheme goes further than we promised, offering free travel to all parts of Scotland at any time of the day - not just off peak periods. "This is a major expansion of our existing free bus scheme. It will open up opportunities and provide greater access to vital health and community services.
"A free national bus travel scheme will further improve the quality of life for over one million people in Scotland by opening access to greater travel choice. It will connect communities across the country.


It does seem that the Scottish system will succeed because it appears to be introduced with the aim of improving lives for Scottish pensioners and the disabled. It will undoubtedly be expensive and quite probably difficult to manage and administer but there is a will to make it work.

The new scheme for England only promises...
  • A new scheme from April 2006 will increase the statutory minimum requirement in Transport Act 2000 from half fares to free fares for older and disabled people on local bus services in England, with no charge for the annual pass.
  • People over 60 and people with disabilities will benefit from free bus travel within the area of the local authority where they live (district councils in shire areas), from 9.30 am Monday to Friday and all day at weekends.

  • Local authorities will retain their existing discretion to offer enhancements to schemes, including providing travel over a wider area eg county-wide schemes; concessions on other modes such as rail, light rail, or ferry, and weekday travel before 9.30 am.
    Authorities will also be able to continue to offer travel token schemes as an alternative to a free local bus pass.
  • Around 11 million people in England over 60 will be guaranteed free local bus travel. Disabled people eligible for concessionary fares will also benefit. Of course some of these people have already benefited from free fares under local authorities which have implemented discretionary schemes. Around 9 million people will get free fares from April 2006 in areas where they previously did not do so.
In other words a real mis-mash of schemes totally dependent on where you live and, more importantly, how much Central Government cash is going into the area you live. We are not all equal!
If you live on a border between local authorities you can have two next door neighbours having different access to free travel. The system in Plymouth is city-wide only. Devon is County wide. This can make a big difference. Some local authorities have a good public transport record - Devon being one of them. The areas where public transport is not so well supported will probably end up even worse off than before. (Plymouth might just fit into this category?)
I think the key to all this is amply explained in just one line in the Telegraph report above..
"The introduction of nationwide free bus travel was a key-plank in Gordon Brown's
pre-election Budget as he sought to win the "grey vote" for Labour."
The English scheme has been introduced with the sole aim of securing votes for New Labour. No real though went into it at the time. When they did sit down and start looking at it they realised it would be difficult to administer so they left it to local authorities to sort out. If it all goes wrong - it will be blamed on the authorities themselves. No blame will be accepted by central government for the mess they make. All this from a central Government who are better known for trying to take control of local public services away from local authority control.
If by some miracle it all does work out well - you can be sure who will take the credit!

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