A Tory-led council has prompted fury after asking the public if they would support an end to free bus travel for disabled people and pensioners.
East Sussex County Council asked in a consultation whether it would be “reasonable” to charge elderly and disabled people half-fares for off-peak bus journeys that they can currently take for free.
In the so-called “core offer” survey, seen by HuffPost UK, East Sussex said that, despite being restricted by legislation, it still wanted to test the water on what people thought of charges for a range of services.
“We are strictly limited by law in the charges we are allowed to make for services. However, we would like to know if there are any further charges you think might (sic) be reasonable if the law changed to allow them,” the consultation said.
Among the ideas that would flout current legislation were:
- Half-fare on buses for pensioners and people with a disability;
- A charge to enter household waste and recycling sites;
- An annual fee for membership of the library.
The consultation suggests East Sussex is quietly gauging support for measures to combat slashed budgets previously untested by local authorities.
The council said responses to the inquiry, which closed on 31 December, “will form part of our dialogue with the government in the months to come and ahead of the next spending review”.
The Local Government Association, which represents authorities, warned last year that the way free bus passes are funded by the central government in Westminster has not kept up with growing demand and rising costs.
But disability and older people’s charities reacted with anger to East Sussex’s consultation, which comes after nine years of austerity and cuts of over £119m to its budget.
Sarah Lambert, of the The Royal National Institute of Blind People, said the charity was “concerned” at the prospect of half-fares for disabled people.
“Buses are a vital lifeline bringing independence to many people with sight loss,” she said. “This could prevent blind and partially sighted people from going about their everyday lives independently and with confidence and so we urge them to reconsider.”
Phil Talbot, of the disability equality charity Scope, said disabled people were often “heavily reliant” on public transport.
“We know that many councils’ finances are stretched. But, life costs more if you are disabled. Scope research shows that these extra costs add up to on average £583 a month,” Talbot said.
“Disabled people often have no choice but to spend more on essential goods and services like heating, therapies and equipment.
“We should all be working to reduce costs for disabled people not looking at ways to ramp them up.”
Nearly 10 million people are eligible for concessionary bus travel in England, according to government figures, and older people’s charity Age UK said those taking free journeys contribute wider benefits to local economies.
Director Caroline Abrahams said: “The free bus pass is absolutely vital to many older and disabled people.
“Local authorities need to recognise that the free bus pass has wider benefits that often contribute to the local economy.
“The transport group Green Journeys have estimated that for every £1 spent on concessions for older and disabled people, there is a return of £3.80.”
The Spinal Injuries Association said it was “disappointed to see that - even as a consultative exercise - the idea of removing the right to free bus passes for older and disabled people is being discussed”.
East Sussex County Council said the “core offer” consultation was “an articulation of the level of service we think residents should be entitled to expect from the council given the current difficult financial climate”.
“It is intended as a tool to guide our future financial planning and to demonstrate to the government the funding issues we face, what is important to local people, and to help us make the case for a realistic level of funding,” a spokesperson said.
“This is not something we’re proposing doing, and to do so would, of course, require a change in the law – we’re just trying to gauge what residents’ priorities are and what they consider essential services in the future if the current funding squeeze on local government were to continue.
“Our position remains that we’re calling [on] government for a truly fair funding review which takes into account the specific needs of counties such as ours which are largely rural in nature and have a high proportion of older residents.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We know that buses are a vital way for older and disabled people to maintain their independence, which is why we give local authorities £1bn to provide the free bus pass scheme each year.
“There are no plans to amend this legislation and we are committed to ensuring that free local bus travel continues for these groups.”