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Breaking News, Cotterill on the Council

How West Lancs Tories misled us on free rail travel

05.11.10 | 8 Comments

I’ve had the following information to hand since before the election, but thought it might get lost in the ‘noise’ if I released it before then.  Certainly it is unlikely the local press would have published such material, given its traditional period of silence on political matters.

It’s the story of how the Tories deliberately misled older people in West Lancashire over free rail travel.

Readers may remember that on behalf of Labour I made the following proposal in my budget speech for the 2010/11 financial year:

We are committed, quite simply, to ensuring that older people in West Lancashire get fair deal, and this means putting money where our mouth is – not in the appointment of an Older People’s Champion, worthy idea though that may be – but in doing the things that really count.  One of these things is making sure older people can get around the area.

At the moment, the concessionary travel package offered by the council is insufficient, particularly in respect of train travel.  The voucher offer of £28 each is, quite frankly, an insult.  Are older people only allowed to go out somewhere 8 times per year?

We’re therefore putting in an additional £150,000 to concessionary travel. While we’re not earmarking it specifically, we would envisage that it might be devoted principally to allowing, through negotiation with the operator over the first few months of the financial year, free rail travel and therefore superseding at least in part the need for vouchers and rail cards. This would create additional finance for the package and bring us closer to the point where free travel is open to all older people.

This commitment to £150,000 in the first year was made on the basis that inevitably negotiations with, for example, Mereytravel would take a few months to conclude, so that in reality we were committing to £150,000 over, say, six months, or the equivalent of £300,000 over a year.

Labour’s proposals were dismissed by the Tories, who claimed that free rail travel was unaffordable, and would require a 15% council tax rise to fund it.

This 15% council tax figure has been bandied about by the Tories for ages, and was repeated in a recent publication ‘What you should know about concessionary travel’.

It is, however, false.

This is the text of an email from a council officer to a West Lancashire constituent who has done some heroic digging for information:

 

The Council’s budget requirement for 2009-10 is £16.322m and consequently 1% of the budget is £0.163m. This budget is funded 58% (£9.503m) from central government grants, which are not within the control of the Council, and 42% (£6.819m) from the Council tax. If the Council were to spend an additional £0.5m this would require an increase in the Council tax of 7.3% (although this would equate to an increase in the Council’s budget of 3.1%).

So, even if we accept a spend of £0.5m were necessary to provide free rail travel, it would still only be around half the figure bandied about by the Tories.

But this is only the start of it. 

The same constituent has uncovered an email for a council officer to Merseytravel in which he asks for:

 

 “ball park, indicative worst case costs”.

That is, he doesn’t ask for comparative best or worst case options  as ab opener for negotitations, simply for the highest possible figure to report back to the political leadership.

Later, the same officer writes:

Any chance of a confidential guestimate at this stage?.

Finally, s/he emails the leader of the Conservative Council:

Hi Councillor Grant, Just received the attached info from Merseyside – I think this will help your position with regard to this issue. For the purposes of your budget I would estimate that your full year costs for free travel on Merseyrail would be in the region of £0.5m to £0.750m. The actual figure will depend upon the following:-quantum of journeys; any commercial deal with Merseyrail; scale of the concession offered to West Lancs residents eg, Ormskirk/Liverpool, or pan-Merseyside.

So there we have it. 

 

It would be in Merseytravel’s interests to do a deal with the council to fill up its empty off-peak trains, and there would almost certainly be room to negotiate the cost down to around – as we set out in our proposals – around 2/3 of the starting figure.  The Conservative council is simply not interested in doing so, because it is not interested in taking responsbility.

As a result, officers have been ordered by the Conservative politicians to seek information that best suits the party’s ideologically-based refusal to consider free rail travel for older people; care has been taken to avoid any substantive enquiries about or negotiations around what might actually be possible, and the purported costs have been deliberately inflated for political reasons.

This is a disgrace, and every older person in West Lancashire deserves to know the contempt with which they’ve been treated by the Conservative party.

8 Comments

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