Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gordon Brown Stuffs Cambridge City on Free Bus Passes

Gordon Brown announced with much fanfare his new policy of nationwide free concessionary bus fares. From 01 April 2008, anyone over 60 or who is disabled, qualifies for a national bus pass which will allow free off-peak local travel anywhere in England. Gordon Brown also claimed that the scheme would be completely funded by the Government Nationally.

Sadly, Council tax payers in Cambridge City are about to discover just how worthless reassurances like this from the Prime Minister are - we are going to be well and truly stuffed.

At a briefing meeting last week ahead of the Strategy Scrutiny committee, we discussed the City Council's 'Medium Term Strategy' - its five year financial forecast that aims to keep the Council on a firm financial footing by looking at the challenges and opportunities ahead. Amongst these was an updated forecast for what the cost of Gordon Brown's 'free' concessionary bus fares would be to Cambridge City - the estimate has risen from £660k to approx £1.3 million pounds - that is the difference between what the City Council expects to pay Stagecoach and what the City Council expects to receive from the Government - a policy forced on the City by the Government, with costs over which the Council has little control.

Reading this post you might think that it can be dismissed as a party political rant - certainly Labour suggested the Council keeps quiet and lobbies the Government for more funding in the background. People certainly get more immune to Government claims and reassurances that turn out to be worthless. So we need to be absolutely clear here - this is an absolute scandal of massive proportions. To put it into context - this extra money that the Council needs to find accounts for 20% of the City Council part of Council Tax bills, just to fund another of Gordon Brown's broken promises.

I was elected on a pledge to put the Council Tax payer first - I have and will continue to argue that in the current economic climate our Councils need to tighten their belts like everyone else, make some challenging savings and cut or at least keep down rises in Council tax. The tragedy of this news is that the Council will have to find the challenging savings, but will still need to put up Council tax by an inflation busting 4.5% year on year, which is deeply depressing for those struggling with ever greater bills of all types. I still think we can and should find a way to restrict Council Tax costs that are rising out of control, but the first task is for the Council to lobby the Government and let them know the scale of the damage they have inflicted to City Council budgets. This story isn't going to go away any time soon.

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