Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Prviateers take older bus users for a ride

This article, by CPO co-founder Neil Clark, appears in The Morning Star.

With pensioners facing means-testing for their bus passes, Neil Clark turns to Belgium. If it can manage decent public-owned public transport, why can't we?

They already have to try to make ends meet on the lowest state pension in the whole of the European Union. They have to live with the fear of having to sell their home if forced to go into care.

Now Britain's long-suffering pensioners face the prospect of a new humiliation - having their free bus travel means-tested.

A recent consultants' report commissioned by the Local Government Association criticised the current scheme for being "targeted too widely" and while both local authorities and the government insisted that they had no plans to introduce means testing in the near future, the economic climate means that free bus travel is likely to be under increasing pressure, especially - if as predicted - the Tories return to power next spring.

But there is one way that local authorities could save money on the scheme and free bus travel for Britain's elderly can be maintained. It's called public ownership.

The reason why the current scheme costs so much money - it cost local authorities £1 billion last year - is that bus travel in Britain is operated not by the local authorities themselves or by a state-owned national bus company but by profiteering private firms.

These companies will use every trick in the book to extract as much money as possible from the public purse.

A report in the Daily Mail quoted the words of one local authority official, who said of the private bus companies: "They are creaming us."
The Mail's Steve Doughty reported: "Many older people tell stories of using their bus passes for short journeys, but find that drivers log them as tickets to the end of the route."

My own next-door neighbour, who is a pensioner, told me he nearly always gets a ticket to the end of the route, even if he has only asked the driver for a stop less than a mile down the road.

Imagine this scam taking place every day up and down Britain and the huge cost of the scheme is no longer such a surprise.

Overall, Britain's private bus companies received a staggering £2.5 billion from the public purse last year. And the chief executive of one of them, Go Ahead's Keith Ludeman - who received a salary of £910,000 last year - has the nerve to say, in relation to the free bus scheme that "pensioners cannot be given a blank cheque."

It really doesn't have to be like this.

Bringing all bus travel back into public ownership would mean that the free bus scheme for Britain's old folk could be administered much more efficiently and at much less cost to taxpayers.

Having just one provider of bus services in a region would bring huge benefits.
At present, local authorities have to pay different bus companies each time a passenger changes buses. So authorities in towns like Preston, which is the main transport nexus in northern Lancashire, are adversely affected by the scheme.
And, as Morning Star reader Graham Hall pointed out in his letter on Tuesday, if the bus companies were municipally owned, the revenue would come back to the local authorities and not go to the pockets of private shareholders.

We don't have to look too far for an example of how things should be done.

Just across the North Sea in Belgium, public transport remains in public ownership. The advantages of having an integrated, state-owned system are immediately apparent to anyone travelling in the country.

Fares, which are calculated by distance and not by "market pricing" are reasonable, trains and buses run on time and the ticketing system is easy to understand.
And pensioners get a cracking deal too. Seniors over 65 - including visitors - pay only €4 (£3.45) for a return second-class trip anywhere in the country, except on weekends from mid-May to mid-September.

But even outside of this period, fares for the elderly are heavily discounted - costing less than a third of the standard fare.

On buses and trams, all transport is free for over-65s, while those aged from 60 to 65 are able to buy a special yearly pass, costing €182 in Flanders - that's €0.50 a day.

And of top of all this, Belgian pensioners receive a state pension that is around 60 per cent of the country's average earnings - compared to their counterparts in Britain whose pension is only 15 per cent.

If Belgium can run an integrated, publicly owned public transport system - and do the right thing by its old folk - why can't we?

Learning from our European neighbours

It's official. While Britain's "dynamic" and "flexible" privatised economy shrank by 0.8 per cent in the three months to June, the economy of those two European countries Thatcherite ideologues like to regard as "unreformed" dinosaurs - France and Germany - grew by 0.3 per cent.

The reason why France and Germany are officially out of recession while Britain still languishes in it is the sort of economy the countries run.

As The Guardian's Larry Eliot says, France and Germany "are less dependent on financial services, tend to have lower levels of consumer debt and have established long-term relationships between banks and companies which guarantee that credit lines are not pulled at the first sign of trouble."

France and Germany, while flirting with neoliberalism in recent years, have never embraced it as wholeheartedly as Britain's political elite.

The result is that both countries still maintain a manufacturing base and both still have vital services such as transport in public ownership.

Yet incredibly, despite the disastrous consequences "free-market" ideology has had for the British economy, neoliberals in the EU are still trying to impose their dogma on the rest of the continent, by trying to force European countries which haven't adopted Thatcherism to follow the flawed British path.

The fact is that it's Britain which should be learning from the rest of Europe - and not the other way round.

Friday, August 7, 2009

CPO Press Release on the threat to the free bus travel scheme for Britain's Pensioners

The Campaign For Public Ownership strongly opposes the means-testing of free bus travel for Britain’s old age pensioners, as recommended by the Local Government Association’s consultants’ report.

The reason why the scheme has proved so expensive is that, in the words of one official, privatised bus companies are ’creaming’ local authorities and routinely overcharging them for transporting pensioners. In the Daily Mail, Steve Doughty reports : “Many older people tell stories of using their bus passes for short journeys- but finding that drivers log them as tickets to the end of the route”.

Keith Adelman, the chief executive of bus privateer Go Ahead has complained that ‘pensioners cannot be given a blank cheque’. Adelman’s company- in common with other bus companies has received millions of pounds in public subsidies, and Adelman himself drew a salary of over £910,000 last year.

It‘s not been Britain’s hard-pressed pensioners who have been given a ‘blank cheque’ but our profiteering private bus operators, which have made a fortune from the British taxpayer since Margaret Thatcher's destruction of the publicly-owned National Bus Company.

The free bus scheme for old age pensioners would be far cheaper to administer, if instead of coughing up ever larger subsidies to profiteering private companies, all bus travel was brought back into public ownership- as it is in Belgium.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

We're outsourcing the future, to be built by Thatcher and Philip K Dick

Don't be fooled. The drive to privatise goes on. How long till schools, prisons and hospitals all sport flashing corporate logos?

Here, anyway, is what increasingly seems to be the future: slick corporate logos flashing from prisons, hospitals, schools, detention centres, defence facilities, police stations and more, and a cut-price society pitched somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and Philip K Dick. Real-life dystopias, let us not forget, tend to arrive by stealth; whatever the political fashion, we need to start talking about all this again – and fast.

By John Harris, The Guardian, 28th July 2009.