Behind the headlines
Over 60's travel for free off-peak
Tourist boom or bust
More than £3.7 million pounds has been spent by councils in Somerset to pay for concessionary bus fares for the over 60's since last April. Local authorities are expected to pay out even more next year, as it increases in popularity.
Somerset's reputation as a tourist destination is one of the factors that has led to councils having to pay out more money to pay for free bus travel for the elderly.
Tim Carroll, leader of South Somerset District Council, said: "Before we were only obligated to fund people who journeyed from South Somerset or within South Somerset.
"Last April anybody who's on holiday or in the area for any other reason can actually qualify even though they don't reside, so we saw huge jumps."
The only council that has lower than expected costs has been West Somerset District Council; it's believed people tend to make use of their bus passes in Taunton Deane, rather than in West Somerset.
It has earmarked £331,000 to finance concessionary bus fares and doesn't expect to exceed this estimate.
For other councils the figure is much higher, with shortfalls ranging from £600,000 to £800,000.
One year into the scheme many of the councils say that it is a burden on their council budgets and with costs expected to rise, discretionary services will suffer and council tax is even more likely to go up as a result to ensure this bill is paid.
Taunton Deane Borough Council and Mendip District Council had a combined total of 7,151 concessionary bus passes issued for people living in their area this year.
This doesn't bear any relation to the actual cost of the scheme partly because some apply for the passes but don't use them.
Mendip District Council received £1.2m from the government, £800,000 of which was claimed back through the rates support grant.
It left the council having to balance its books to find the £400,000 shortfall and next year it expects to pay out a further £180,000.
Harvey Siggs, leader of Mendip District Council, said: "Obviously it's a strain on all of our services, it's part of the reason we've got a budget deficit gap we're filling in for next year.
"The strain is that we're committed - we don't have a lot of flexibility in council tax. We actually believe at the moment with everybody feeling the pinch that the maximum we believe we will increase council tax by will be three per cent."
Over the past financial year Sedgemoor District Council has been forced to make job cuts as a way of trying balance the books. In 2007-08, a total of £1,037,421 was spent, of which £392,421 was paid by tax payers.
The current prediction for 08/09 is £292,430 charged to tax payers, however this is forecast to rise to £562,700 in 09/10.
A spokesperson for the council said the concessionary bus fares scheme meant it had to make a saving of £1.8m during this financial year.
Although the general consensus is that free bus travel for the over 60's in England is a positive step by giving older people a cheaper way to travel, both Mendip District Council and South Somerset District are feeling the pinch.
"It means that we have had to find savings in other services in other areas to actually fund this.
"This is a very laudable initiative but we would have expected full funding from the government to actually fund this - about £600,000 that will rise to £730,000 - £750,000 next year as far as we're aware, it's a hell of an impact," said Tim.
last updated: 23/01/2009 at 18:44