Bus or Busted ?
The Commissar is worried.
Mind you he cries "wolf!" so many times, its difficult to know when he actually means it, and when he's just bluffing in case it all works out OK and he looks as though he's produced a miracle. This time however, there might be some foundation for
his concern. He just might be looking at a really big budget problem. And it's all down to bus tickets.
There used to be a 'concessionary travel' scheme in Fylde that gave out £10 worth of Bus Tokens to pensioners.
Later this changed to travel tokens, and rail travel was included. Then they became OAP bus passes that gave half price travel in Fylde.
We don't have the figure for the last year of this spending, but we think it was in the order of £100,000
Then Government got involved, and said the over 60 year olds (and the disabled) should have free off-peak travel within the Borough.
Fylde implemented a scheme that also gave the over 60's cross border travel for just 50p if they had the bus pass, and Government provided an extra £486,000 for Fylde to pay for the free travel within its own Borough.
So with the spending they previously had for dishing out tokens, and adding in the extra money from the Government, the scheme should have cost something in the region of £150 + £486 = £586,000
But the Commissar (or rather the consultant he appointed to advise him) didn't think the free travel in Fylde scheme would cost anything like £586,000 - so he snaffled £205,000 of the extra Government money to spend on other things, saying he only
expected to have to spend £281,000 extra on giving out bus tickets.
After the scheme got going, he genuinely seemed surprised that more people were using the free travel than he expected, and he told us that the bus fares were going to cost nearer to £550,000.
Now if you'd have paid an expert consultant for advice, and he told you that you needed to spend £281,000 - and the job actually cost you nearer to £550,000, you might have a word with him about getting your money back, and maybe even claiming
liquidated damages for the difference. But that's not how the Commissar works, he just keeps getting the cheque book out.
Fore those who want more background information, we have covered these stories before, (see We're in the Money, and Fares Fair and
Budget Busting Bus Blues)
Earlier this year however, Commissar Coombes revised the estimated cost to £798,000.
And now he thinks it's going to turn out at £890,000 when the financial year ends in April.
Its tempting and easy to make criticisms about this sort of budgeting. And in all honesty, the initial mistake to take £205,000 out was a disaster, as was his the gross underestimating of demand.
But to be fair, most of the recent excess spending isn't a controllable cost. It is demand led scheme. You can't stop people getting on buses just because you've spent what you budgeted, you just have to do better estimating and grin and bear it.
However, from next April, it gets even worse, because two big new changes are on the way.
Firstly, the scheme goes national. From next April, the over 60s and the disabled will be able to get on a bus here and go as far as the bus goes. They can have free off-peak bus travel anywhere in England
Secondly, the basis of charging has to alter. Instead of it only benefiting Borough residents, because the scheme will become UK wide, it is open to anyone, so the cost of any journey is going to be borne by the Council from where the journey starts.
To meet the cost of this extra spending, the Government is making £212 million available to the 350 or so councils that fund public transport. So on a crude average, each council should get an extra £600,000 or so.
Now, if we have spent £890,000 with the scheme as it is, you don't have to be a financial genius to work out that another £600,000 or so to fund the national scheme probably isn't going to go that far (pardon the pun) when it costs people over
60 (and the disabled) nothing to travel as
far as the bus goes.
If you think about it, at least in theory, anyone getting a lift to Fylde from, say, Manchester, or Lancaster, or Southport, can get a bus home courtesy of the Commissar, all paid for from the Government grants and our taxes that Fylde collects.
We're hearing stories that it will only apply to local bus journeys, but no-one yet seems able to define what local is. For example, the X42 express service from Blackpool to Lancaster seems to be covered. It certainly is under the present scheme.
Wyre to Lancaster is just 50p with the pass.
However, we're not sure if the scheme will work with National Express, and we'll be able to go to London for a few days courtesy of Fylde's budget, and come back courtesy of London's budget, (or maybe we could do a bit of silver surfing in
Newquay if we get some nice weather)
counterbalance was also musing on the idea of approaching the local bus company to see if they would be interested to operate a circular service that would start say, at the Admiral in St Anne's, then go to the Taps at Lytham, then the Villa and the
Grapes at Wrea Green, then the Eagle and Child at Weeton, and the Miller Arms at Singleton, and the River Wyre, and the Thatched and the High Cross in Poulton, returning via the Newton Arms and Plough at Staining, and a few of the other Fylde
We could imagine quite a few pleasant summer days travelling - last of the summer wine style - from pub to pub meeting friends at each, and keeping the roads safe, with the Commissar kindly covering the bus fares for us. What think our
readers? Is it worth asking Blackpool Transport to put on such a service?
We also raised a wry smile as we pictured the Commissar and his Wyre equivalent setting up a table outside their respective Town Halls to hand out tenners to anyone who could be persuaded to get a taxi over the Blackpool boundary so they would start their bus
journey home from Blackpool, (So the journey cost would get charged to Blackpool Council and not Fylde or Wyre).
Now that really would be partnership working.
Of course, for the real bus journeys, Fylde probably won't be as badly off as Blackpool.
Car ownership rates here are much higher for a start, as is wealth and disposable income (and indeed employment), so it's likely to be a bigger problem for Blackpool taxpayers because they will have more bus users.
But even so, there could be trouble ahead for us.
Although it's making £212 million available nationally, the Government isn't saying "send us the bus ticket bill at the end of the year and we'll pay it" as they should (because they are introducing the scheme and have undertaken to fund it).
However, they are consulting on how the pot should be divided up, and they sent Fylde's Politburo some options to consider.
These options are supposedly based on things like:
.. Eligible population
.. Passenger journeys on buses
.. Day visitors
.. Incapacity benefit and severe disablement allowance claimants
.. Population density
.. Bus stop density
.. Concessionary passes already issued
.. Passes issued in neighbouring authorities
.. Retail floor space
and so on
Depending on which mix and weighting of these factors the Government selects, Fylde could actually get between £257,000 and £531,000 extra to cover the additional cost.
Government asked Fylde's Politburo Cabinet to say which option they wanted.
Now at first sight, that will seem a stupid question to ask, because every Council throughout the land that responds is going to say - in effect - "the option that gives us the most money"
Which is what Fylde's Politburo Cabinet did last week.
In fact, it's not so daft a question as it seems.
Suppose the £212 million is only half or even just a quarter of the real cost - and this could easily be the case (just imagine all those extra journeys in rural areas as post offices and banks close and countryside dwellers have to go to town more
often, and the extra journeys needed as local doctors surgeries merge into more distant industrial health processing units, let alone the potential for holiday bus travel at the seaside), and suppose you've persuaded all the Councils in the UK to
choose the option that gives each of them the most money.
Then what the Councils have actually said to Government is, "give us half (or a quarter) of what it will actually cost"
Government's onto a winner, innit?
And that's just what the Commissar has done. By choosing "Option 3" he has signed his own financial death warrant - which of course, will end up meaning we spend more local taxes on bus travel, and less on other local services like street sweeping and
What he should have said was "reimburse us whatever your scheme costs us"
But then what can expect form someone so financially incompetent that he is planning to spend £7 million on a new town hall scheme whilst at the same time he says he is going to transfer 60% of his staff onto Wyre Council's payroll before its built.
Still, at least he will be able to complain that it's the Government's fault he hasn't got enough money to pay the bus fares this time next year.
And Government will say - "Well, we gave you what you asked for."
Dated: 22 November 2007