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Monday, 21 April 2014

Cash shortfall fears over free bus journeys for OAPs

FREE bus rides for pensioners in South Lakeland could bust the council’s budget.

A0421719
KEITH JOHNSON: Barrow Borough Council community services manager

South Lakeland District councillors are concerned that over six months into the financial year, the authority is only just about to learn how much the scheme – open to anyone aged over 60 from across the UK – has cost.

The government’s Concessionary Fares Scheme – which provides free travel to NowCard holders – is funded by SLDC.

The council will this year receive £850,000 from the government to reimburse Stagecoach for the individual bus fares used by those eligible for the scheme.

Councillor Andy Shine, SLDC deputy leader, explained computer software designed to track how many people use the scheme is behind schedule.

He said: “We are about to receive our first invoice six months into the financial year. We have no idea how much we actually owe – no real knowledge of where we are at financially with this, even though we have been given a fixed income to pay for it by the government. Stagecoach doesn’t know how much to charge us for usage.

“To put it into context, imagine as a householder that you haven’t received an electricity or gas bill for six months, having no idea what it will amount to. The Lake District gets 10 million visitors a year, but no system is yet in place to distinguish local pensioners from tourists. We are a victim of our own success.”

Concern is now growing that the district council could face a large bill – exceeding the amount set aside by the government to cover the scheme – in April 2009.

Early estimates forecast the deficit could run to £80,000. And that money would have to come from funds set aside to provide other council services.

Cllr Shine added: “We may have to dip into reserves to cover what was billed as a completely government funded scheme. We shall tell the government: great scheme, bad implementation.”

Councillor Graham Vincent said: “Early indication of costs tend to understate the position. Three to four years ago this was just £300,000 to £400,000 – yet it is still putting a massive cost on this council.”

Barrow Borough Council and Copeland Borough Council do not yet know if they will face similar deficits.

Keith Johnson, community services manager at Barrow Borough Council, said the authority was not expecting a shortfall but would keep a close eye on the situation.

He said: “When the government extended the scheme to allow people to use their passes anywhere in England, authorities around here had already had that system for a couple of years so we were prepared for it.

“The problem arises because the authority in which the passenger gets on the bus pays for it, and places like Kendal are a changing point for other destinations – it’s the same reason why Preston is struggling.

“We are working a little blind because we have not had this data back.

“We are as anxious as SLDC and we are keeping a close eye on it but we are not expecting a shortfall.”

A spokesman for Copeland Borough Council said: “We have recently received some information from NowCard, which we will now evaluate, and will give us some indication of the likely cost of the concessionary travel scheme for 2008-09.

“We are aware that there have been some problems with the back office software, and this has hindered authorities in getting this information.

“It is too early to say whether the concessionary travel scheme will cost more than our earmarked budget.”

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