Kent Freedom Pass: KCC reverse decision but costs will double

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Thursday, February 6, 2014
9:48 AM

Petition brings pressure to bear on controversial decision

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County Hall chiefs have made a sensational u-turn over controversial plans to set a cap on its popular Freedom Pass following widespread pressure from parents.

Thousands signed a petition against the upcoming changes in which a new ‘top-up’ style smartcard, costing £100, would be introduced but with a limit of £350 worth of travel.

Currently, secondary children up to the age of 16 pay £100 for unlimited travel, during school term, holidays and weekends.

Cash-strapped Kent County Council, however, argued it was no longer able to support the scheme in its current form due to government budget cuts.

It must save £6 million from the £13.5m annual cost of the pass in the next financial year.

Following huge backlash from parents, however, the authority has now instead proposed a fixed fee pass costing £200.

But unlike the current scheme, travel on the new pass will be limited to 6am-7pm Monday to Friday, from September 1 to July 31, leaving out August.

Cabinet member for transport at KCC David Brazier said: “The Kent Freedom Pass is a discretionary scheme, which means that we provide it without any statutory obligation to do so.

“We appreciate the importance parents place on getting their children to school by bus and have taken on board the concerns that have been raised about the potential cost of topping up a smart card that might not otherwise cover the whole academic year.

“Our research shows that under the current scheme 75–78 per cent of all journeys are made between home and school.

“We must find £273 million of savings over the next three years, so in order to continue delivering the most valued element of the Freedom Pass we have focussed on providing school-day travel.

“To fund this we must increase the cost of the new pass to £200 – but this is still less than the extra cost parents were telling us they would have had to have faced if we had replaced the Freedom Pass with a capped-value smart card.

“I’m sure parents will agree that the new scheme remains remarkable value for money and demonstrates the council’s commitment to enabling access to the bus network.”

Parent and Conservative Shepway district councillor Emily Arnold was a leading campaigner in the fight against the smartcard-style card.

She launched petitions which were signed by thousands of parents.

Cllr Arnold said she would have had to pay up to £1,000 for her two secondary-aged children to get to school had the top-up pass been introduced.

“I’m very happy with the planned changes,” she said.

“I think there was a lot of pressure from parents. I think this new scheme is a fair compromise.”

Cllr Arnold had always stressed she understood KCC needed to save money and that the current £100 unlimited travel pass was perhaps overgenerous.

She had proposed making the pass just for home-school travel, rather than weekends and holidays.

“I never particularly agreed that it was down to KCC to pay for travel at weekends,” she said.

“Under the new pass, they still get Monday to Friday, with the exception of August, and I’m happy with that.”

KCC said work is continuing on provision for 16-18 travel but speculation suggests older students may be hit with a fee of £400 for the pass.

Cllr Arnold said: “I don’t think this is fair. Children have to stay in full time education until they are 18 now and I think that £400 is too much. I would ask KCC to reconsider this and make this also £200.”

The authority will debate the matter at a full council meeting next week, which will set the authority’s budget for 2014/15.

Labour members on the council welcomed the Tory plans, calling it a ‘U-turn’.

Labour leader Gordon Cowan, who is also education spokesman, said: “This is a victory for the children and parents who have campaigned so strongly right across Kent.

“It also shows the value of removing the overwhelming majority that the Tories enjoyed in the last council up to May last year.

“They now understand that the Freedom Pass is not some kind of cultural luxury but an essential part of very many people’s family budget plans.”

Under the proposed Young Persons’ Travel Pass there would be no charge for Looked After Children and young carers, while the cost of a pass for those receiving free school meals, an indicator of poverty, would be halved to £100.

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