Bus pass scheme proving un-fare

FREE bus travel is proving more expensive for some Cambridgeshire residents than the half-fare scheme they enjoyed until last month. Councils and MPs are pressing the Government to provide extra money for free travel for pensioners and disabled people thr

FREE bus travel is proving more expensive for some Cambridgeshire residents than the half-fare scheme they enjoyed until last month.

Councils and MPs are pressing the Government to provide extra money for free travel for pensioners and disabled people throughout Cambridgeshire.

But red tape means it could be months before bus passengers know if they are to get free travel across the county - and it could take even longer to implement.

Until last month, local authorities provided half-fare county-wide travel, which also applied to any journey starting or ending in Cambridgeshire or Peterborough.


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When the Government demanded free travel for these groups, it was restricted to journeys within each district. A deal between Cambridgeshire councils produced a flat-fare scheme for journeys across district boundaries of £1 single or £1.80 return.

Huntingdonshire District Council wanted to retain the county-wide concession and make it free - and was prepared to invest more money to achieve it.

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But other cash-strapped authorities, particularly South Cambridgeshire, said they could not afford the extra money.

Now they are pressing Whitehall to provide cash ahead of a national free pass scheme from 2008, announced by the Chancellor in his Budget in March.

South Cambridgeshire District Council's cabinet member for planning and economic development, Councillor David Bard, has written to Transport Secretary Alistair Darling, pleading for more cash.

He believes the free travel scheme, which was designed for urban areas, works against South Cambs because there are no towns in the district.

"Many residents must travel to centres outside the district to meet their daily needs," he wrote. "As a result, under the new arrangements, these residents now pay more in fares than under the former half-fare scheme."

People living in Papworth, Caxton or Cambourne, which are all in South Cambs, are particularly hard hit as their bus services all cross district boundaries, triggering the flat fares.

But the likelihood of extra cash being forthcoming before April 2008 is low, in spite of MPs having lent their weight to the councils' campaign.

One problem is that it is not yet clear what the scheme is costing or how much more money would be required to expand it.

Councillor Nick Guyatt, Huntingdonshire's cabinet member for strategic planning, said: "We should know in six months' time what it is going to cost us.

"On the basis of what the half-fare scheme cost, we have budgeted £600,000 for it this year. But we need to know what the reality is before we look at changing it. I'm not very optimistic unless we can all afford to do it.

"But we need to make sure we have a scheme that works across district boundaries. We may be able to find some affordable flexibility."

Given it will take six months to establish the cost of the existing scheme and a chunk of time to negotiate any changes, and that the councils are required to give the operators six months' notice of any changes, there is only a small likelihood the scheme will be altered before national free travel is introduced in April 2008.

"We would still like to do it, though, for the benefit of people on the fringes of the district, such as those in Yaxley and Stilton, whose focus is Peterborough," Cllr Guyatt said.

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