FREE bus travel for over-60s is a life-changer worth keeping, writes Alastair Dalton
Providing free bus travel for the over-60s and disabled will cost Scottish taxpayers over £200 million this year, nearly one third more than when the scheme was launched a decade ago.
To some, that level of spending is a massive and unwarranted subsidy, while others regard it as vital support to help improve the lives of older and less able citizens. The scheme enables those eligible the right to travel free on buses across Scotland, virtually without restriction.
The scale of the scheme’s burden on the Scottish budget – and its inexorable increase as the population ages – will ensure it comes under continuing scrutiny.
Four years ago, the then Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont raised the issue of whether such “universal benefits” should be reviewed because it meant money could not be spent elsewhere. She repeated this in January.
I hear there is no suggestion that reducing free bus travel will feature in Labour’s forthcoming Scottish election manifesto. After all, the party introduced it – while in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
In addition, Labour ran what seemed to me like a baseless scaremongering campaign after the SNP came to power in 2007, alleging that the Nationalists were about to “shove your granny off the bus” by restricting free travel.
Maybe it staved off a review, but I don’t think there’s any evidence for that.
Anyhow, it looks like it’s off Labour’s agenda – and they wouldn’t want the SNP pointing the finger back at them. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have described free travel as a benefit that is easy to give but difficult to remove.
However, the issue has been raised in other quarters, such as by the Scottish Association for Public Transport think tank.
Tom Hart, its president, has suggested limiting free bus travel to those over the state pension age (currently between 60 and 65), but extending it for those eligible to trains and ferries in their local area too.
That would remove bus passes from those still in work. The SNP has argued that rich people in that category don’t use them anyway, and I’ve encountered a prejudice against buses among older, relatively-affluent car drivers that’s probably quite pervasive.
I’d suggest that the potential benefits of free bus travel justify its cost, but I’d like to see more research proving that or otherwise.
Providing an incentive for older people becoming more active by getting them out of the house must be a good thing. As well as the health benefits, as travel is likely to also increase social interaction, that can only be positive.
However, there’s the added advantage that all these trips may be also be keeping bus services going. Buses are struggling to retain other passengers, increasing the pressure to axe loss-making services.
Bus operators depend on occasional users to become regular passengers for growth, but if the service is not there in the first place, that opportunity will be lost.
Greener Journeys, a bus industry lobby group, has said every £1 spent on free travel generated nearly £3 in benefits, such as health.
Scottish Government research three years after its scheme started showed a small increase in walking, while those questioned “strongly agreed it had helped them develop a more active lifestyle”. More than half said they had used the bus to get to their GP or hospital.
We should keep the scheme going, but know much more about how it is changing lives.