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Curse of the day-trippers

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I have bus pass number 44011932. It gives me free travel on buses in North Yorkshire. I am one of 28,730 pass holders in the Harrogate district, says David Curry.

Occasionally I take the Number 36 bus between Harrogate and Ripon. If I were to travel between Harrogate and Leeds I would be one of about half a million users of the free pass on this service.

Were I to pop over from Harrogate to Knaresborough I would be part of a semi-geriatric army projected to reach 750,000 this year.

We are all doing our bit to bankrupt Harrogate BC .

Bankrupt? An exaggeration, perhaps but not much of one. Council after council in England is facing the prospect of seeing their budget shot to pieces by the scheme to allow over-60s and people with disabilities free bus travel.

The problem is that government funding bears no relationship to the costs incurred. What is more, increased fuel costs have led to bus fare increases while weaning people out of their cars and onto the buses.

The switch from reimbursing operators on a fixed-price basis to one based on average fares has also pushed up costs.

The Department for Transport’s assumption of a national average fare of£1 on which to base its grant may well reflect the level of urban fares, but is well adrift of rural fares, which in Harrogate average£1.64.

Harrogate funds not only its own residents, it also meets the fares of non-residents starting their journeys in the district.

The council estimated the cost of the scheme for 2008-09 at about£2m, against a total grant of£1.35m. It is now grappling with a worst-case cost forecast of between£2.6m and£2.9m, depending on the degree to which travel numbers decline over the winter.

It has already had to finance an additional bus on the Harrogate to Knaresborough route to fulfil the requirement to make the scheme financially neutral for bus operators.

It is warning that recycling, parks, open spaces and leisure budgets could take a huge hit to find the money. There could also be a steep increase in parking charges.

If the shortfall were to be met from council tax alone it would imply a rise of somewhere between 10% and 13%. The odds against the government allowing that are roughly 118 billion to zero.

The seriously frightening statistic for Harrogate is that take-up in the district is still only about 56% of those eligible. Nationally, take-up lies between 65% and 80%.

Harrogate is far from alone. York is facing costs above£4m this year against a government grant of£1.1m. Its only consolation is that at 86%, take-up is probably near its peak.

A list of the most at-risk councils would read like a catalogue of England’s shire capitals, cathedral cities and seaside and spa towns.

But not everyone is in the same boat. For some councils this is a nice little earner. Lancashire CC illustrates the story well. Blackpool (the biggest loser), Burnley , Chorley , Fylde , South Ribble and Wyre BCs and Lancaster and Preston city councils may be feeling a collective pinch, but Pendle BC (the big winner), Blackburn with Darwen, Hyndburn, Ribble Valley and Rossendale BCs and West Lancashire DC stand to gain collectively to the tune of some£1.3m.

The dividing line is not a purely urban/rural one. In general, urban areas have done better from the distribution of funds.

Any attempt to rework the distribution is therefore likely to run up against strong resistance.

The government has said it will not re-open the package which it is keeping “under review” a phrase which can mean something or nothing.

It takes refuge behind the discussions with the Local Government Association which, it says, led to the formula for distribution in the first place.

But things can only get worse. Even the ‘profits’ of the winners could be eroded if take-up increases. In Scotland, which has longer experience of such free travel, the year-on-year growth is close to 10%.

Here the government is talking of a 2.5% annual grant increase.

Perhaps every bus in Harrogate should carry a warning sign: ‘Enjoy it while it lasts you’ll end up paying for it.’

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