There is a national bus pass scheme which entitles holders (including those over 60 and people with disabilities) to free travel after 9.30 in the morning. Until this year, Cornwall Council operated a slightly better scheme which allowed free travel at all times for pass holders. However this was scaled back to the national standard in the recent budget cuts as an alternative to scrapping subsidies for weekend and evening services.
In return for carrying these 'free' passengers, bus companies are given a subsidy payment. This was 73.5% of the standard fare for the journey.
Cornwall Council's Cabinet Member for Transportation, Cllr Graeme Hicks, recently sent an email to members saying that he didn't think that the current level of payments to bus companies was sustainable. He asked councillors what they thought on the issue. One key quote from Cllr Hicks' briefing to councillors was:
"It is proposed to consult with the bus operators with a view to introducing the revised level of reimbursement at the end of August 2011."
Now it turns out that he has sent letters to bus companies telling them that he has already made the decision to cut their subsidy from the 73.5% figure to around 44%. Not only that, but he is back-dating the cuts to April. There has been no consultation with the bus companies and I don't think there is any understanding about the likely impact of these cuts on services. Bus travel will still be free to pass holders, but without the buses, the passes will become pointless.
On the one hand Cllr Hicks talks about consulting with bus companies, but on the other he has sent them a letter making it quite clear that the decision is already made. His comment: "It's the times we live in."
What will be the impact of these cuts? Quite simply, if bus companies have their subsidy cut, they will cut those routes that rely on subsidy to operate. In other words, routes to the most rural villages and communities. It won't just be bus pass holders who will lose out. Poorer households will find it much harder to get to work and will become even more cut off from families and friends. Rural life will become even more difficult.
This is hardly the 'Big Society' in action. Instead, it appears to be a contraction to cut adrift those people living in rural and remote communities. It could be that a scheme that was designed to help the elderly get about by bus will end up with no buses at all.
The letter sent to bus companies (anonymised):
Cllr Hicks briefing note in full:
Concessionary Fares - Note to Members 130711
The piece that ran on Westcountry last night is here.