Councils have said the way the concessionary travel scheme is funded by Whitehall is unfit for purpose and prevents councils from investing in more reliable bus services.
An alarming £452 million had to be spent by councils last year to prop up the Government’s national concessionary bus fares scheme, new Local Government Association analysis shows.
The national scheme, which councils are legally obligated to administer in England, provides older and disabled people with free off-peak travel on all local bus services with local authorities responsible for reimbursing bus operators for journeys made by those with a pass.
Ahead of its Annual Conference which begins next week in Bournemouth, the LGA said the way the concessionary travel scheme is funded by Whitehall is unfit for purpose and prevents councils from investing in more reliable bus services.
New LGA analysis reveals there was a £452 million gap in the funding councils receive from government for the scheme compared to the actual number of journeys made last year.
This is forcing councils to plug the gap from their own stretched budgets. Discretionary bus services - such as free peak travel, community transport services, reduced fares and school transport – have had to be scaled back by local authorities across the country for them to top up the statutory national scheme from their discretionary budgets.
Recently announced measures such as the extension of the £2 bus fare scheme and extension of emergency funding support for bus operators will help encourage people back to bus travel and sustain many lifeline routes.
The LGA said the Government also needs to fully fund the concessionary fare scheme to ease the pressure on stretched local budgets, protect cherished bus services and help people travel during the cost-of-living crisis as part of a long-term, reformed bus funding model.
This would allow councils and operators to reverse historic cuts made to local services, introduce new routes, keep fares down, get people out of their cars and make our air cleaner.
Cllr Linda Taylor, Transport spokesperson for the LGA, said:
“The free bus pass is a lifeline for many in our communities. It allows many vulnerable residents to go shopping, pick up medication, and attend doctors’ appointments.
“Our analysis shows that the scheme is not being adequately funded, leaving councils to try and find nearly half a billion pounds every year from their own overstretched budgets to keep it running. This is completely unsustainable.
“It is vital this scheme is properly funded so councils can protect bus routes and reinvest in local networks. By providing long term funding for buses across the country, council can invest in improved services, attracting more people to use public transport.”