(Title Image: Wales Online)
Yesterday, Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), provided AMs with an update on his plans for concessionary bus fares.
Free bus pass scheme needs changes to remain sustainable
The Minister acknowledged that while free bus passes have been a huge success since they were introduced in 2002, the increase in the number of over-60s as a proportion of the population has resulted in the cost of the scheme rising. 47% of all bus journeys in Wales are made using free bus passes and there was a need to maintain a fair system that protects the independence of older people but at the same was sustainable.
Alongside an increase in the eligibility age, other proposed changes include restricting free bus pass eligibility to those permanently resident in a Welsh local authority.
“I appreciate that there will be concerns about these proposals, including what they mean for current pass holders. However, I would like to make it clear that any person who holds a concessionary pass at the time the changes to the law are made will not lose their entitlement to that pass in any circumstances….The changes….will not come into force before April 2022. Therefore, anyone who reaches the age of 60 before this date will not be affected by these changes.”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates
He also touched on bus pass renewal. Transport for Wales has received 210,000 online applications to date – though there was no apology for issues on the website within the first few days of applications opening as the issue has been revolved.
Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), was concerned about the potential unintended consequences of the changes – such as reduced bus use, which could threaten the viability of some routes or lead to many over-60s going back to driving cars. He also raised the possibility of extending concessionary fares to the under-25s.
The Minister said getting people out of buses was only part of the mix; the services themselves had to be reliable and that means using resources carefully. However, he then said something interesting:
“My view is that a flat, fair fare of a minimal amount – for example, £1 per journey anytime anywhere across Wales – would incentivise people sufficiently to leave their cars at home if they know that they’re going to get from A to B quicker than they would in a car.”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates
See also: State of Wales – Free Public Transport
“Transport for Wales messed up on this one, because they should’ve provided us with a briefing in advance and also to people who work in public services in our libraries, so that we knew that this change was coming, rather than having members of the public telling us what was going to happen, which certainly happened to me on 10th September.”
– Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central)
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said the website problems caused a great deal of distress. It was all well and good saying that people had until December to renew their passes, but that’s not how people worked. Constituents have been worried they would lose their pass and wanted to get it done quickly.
The Minister repeated that the Transport for Wales website is fixed. He was confident all applications will be processed by the end of the year.
“….(The Older People’s Commissioner) has put out quite robust opposition to you moving the age from 60 to 65. And just some of the reasons….it will have a significant impact on older people, it does run the risk of increasing loneliness and isolation, and also every pound spent on concessionary fares returns at least £2.87 in benefits for older people, their communities and local economies.”
– Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy)
Turning to the Minister’s suggestion of flat fares, Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East), called for a trial in a local authority area, but also questioned the “data protection” reasoning behind the change in smartcards.
The Minister said the new card would, in the future, enable them to be used anywhere in the UK if free travel schemes were introduced across the UK. He cited the ArrivaClick system in Liverpool as a fare structure he would like to emulate.