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Fares Fair?

Bus pass money snaffled to cover debtIn ''We're in the money' we saw how the Government paid an extra 486,000 to Fylde Council so it could introduce a free concessionary travel scheme for OAP's this year.

We also accused Commissar Coombes of snaffling 205,000 of this money to cover up his overspending elsewhere.

This meant the Commissar only introduced a limited travel scheme for Fylde's OAP's, even though the Government had actually given him more than enough to provide completely free travel for all of them.

This is an unusual situation. Fylde almost never gets a fair share of any money the Government hands out, (and here the Government allocated a quite substantial 350 million nationwide) because the Government usually hands it out according to its 'Deprivation Index' and Fylde is one of the UK's wealthier (and thus less deprived) Boroughs. Typically we are around 300th out of about 350 Boroughs in the deprivation stakes. Usually we get the tail end of what is left after the deprived places have been paid out.

So why was it different this time? How come Fylde got one of the more generous settlements for the concessionary travel scheme?

The answer is that Government decided to distribute the money purely on the number of pensioners and disabled people in each Borough, and Fylde's demography is very heavily skewed toward pensioners. Fylde got a stash of cash because it has a lot of pensioners.

Some places, (like Tyne & Wear in the North East - who are used to getting bigger settlements based on their high deprivation index) are squealing loudly about a shortfall, and how they can't afford to meet the cost of the free travel scheme, whilst others have used all the money they were given, and provided totally free travel for all OAPs.

So why is it only now that the story of Commissar Coombs' duplicity and disregard for his electorate is emerging?

Well, using the public speaking opportunity at a meeting of the St Anne's on the Sea Town Council (which is completely independent of Fylde Borough Council) a local resident complained about the travel scheme introduced in Fylde.

After hearing her story, the Town Council decided to write to Fylde Council and ask if free bus travel could be implemented.

This inquiry - picked up by the local paper - has provoked John Coombes to comment. He is reported as telling the Lytham St Anne's Express that the scheme cannot be amended.

This is not true.

What he means is he does not intend to amend it now he has already used half of what he was given on other things.

He could still amend the scheme, or even fully implement it, using just part of the millions of pounds he has in his various reserve funds at Fylde Council, but it seems he doesn't want to.

This is probably the first time that the St Anne's Town Council has exercised the mandate given to them by the people of this town to hold the Borough Council to account. By highlighting the problem, and providing a platform for public comment, they have caused the Commissar to account for his actions

The 'Express' quotes him as saying "I will not implement a Labour manifesto to the detriment of the residents of Fylde. It was a case of keep the baths open and keep our streets clean, or satisfy the needs of a small number of people. I have to be thinking about all residents of the Fylde borough."

Apart from his usual overt and unwelcome politicisation of what should be a decision made in the best interests of local people, this again is a disingenuous comment. His accounts show he used half the money provided for free bus travel to cover some of the 700,000 overspend he already had, not on keeping the baths open, or on street cleaning.

And as for it only benefiting a small number of people, it should be obvious to anyone that the reason he got so much for the OAP travel scheme is because of the exceptionally high number of pensioners in his Borough.

counterbalance expects this 'minority' of residents to remember he siphoned off half their bus-pass money when he asks for their support at the next election.

But it gets worse. The scheme he has introduced is also very confusing, and verging on a Monty Python sketch.

Advice being given by our local councils includes the following. (Remember, these instructions are for pensioners)

"Free travel will be available on bus journeys that are wholly within the borough after 0930 weekdays and all day Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays.

For journeys before 0930 or wholly outside the borough, but within Lancashire, there will be no change to your existing concession.

After 0930 weekdays and all day Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays, through journeys that cross into other district/borough council areas will be charged at a single flat fare of 50p for the over 60's for an introductory period. If you are a disabled passenger, the existing concession will apply.

Before 0930 weekdays the existing concession rate will apply"

(Are you still with us here gentle reader, or have you already given up in confusion?     It continues...)

"Return fares will not be available before 0930 Monday to Friday during the introductory period on cross border fares.

At the end of the introductory period, (late spring), trips into other district/borough council areas will be free to the pass holder's district boundary. For the remainder of the journey, from the boundary to the destination, the current concessionary fare will apply.

The bus ticket machine will automatically calculate the fare. The above time restrictions will also apply.

Concessionary fares will also apply to journeys into the neighbouring areas of Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire.

The arrangements with West Yorkshire where Lancashire pass holders could travel wholly within West Yorkshire at concessionary rates have been withdrawn"

So there we are, clear as mud, isn't it? Not only will pensioners have to grapple with 'the system' they will also have to tell the driver which borough they are travelling to, and whether it is in Lancashire - which, of course, for these purposes, places like Blackpool are not .

The mind boggles. We foresee long queues at bus stops as the conductor's hand hovers over the buttons as prospective passengers try to remember the name of the borough they are travelling to (We know quit a few who don't know which borough they live in now!)

Perhaps the Commissar likes to keep it confusing. If fewer pensioners can understand it, less will use it, and he will 'save' even more.

Try this for size

counterbalance has an Auntie Gladys who lives in Poulton, which is in Wyre Borough. She wants to visit her friend Alice, who lives in Garstang, also in Wyre Borough. So on that basis our Auntie Gladys should be able to travel free after 9.30am.

However, the bus she gets is the No 42, which uses the main Garstang to Blackpool road. For part of its journey, this route crosses into, then out, of Fylde Borough (see picture).
Approximate borough boundaries

So in the introductory period, according to the scheme's rules, our Auntie Gladys will have to pay a flat fare of 50p, even though both the start and end of the journey are in the same borough and it ought to be free. After the introductory period, she will have to pay what she paid before the improved scheme was introduced. She says it is "Some improvement"

We wonder whether she could (literally) get around his problem by getting a bus to Fleetwood (yes, we know it's in the opposite direction), then caching the ferry to Knott End (which as public transport might also be free under the concession), then the bus from Knott End to Garstang. That way it might achieve the free travel she was promised.

Of course, if councils like Fylde had spent all the money they were given for concessionary travel on what the were supposed to spend it on, rather than siphoning half of it off to cover their own financial mismanagement, our Auntie Gladys (and lots of other OAP's) wouldn't have to be coughing up to the modern version of Dick Turpin in the guise of John Coombes exercising his modern day 'highway robbery'

Dated:  14 May 2006


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