Thousands face hardship as Kent County Council puts cap on Freedom Pass use
Thousands of school children face a cap on the number of times they can use the Kent Freedom Pass under cost-cutting measures being considered by the county council.
Proposals published today detail major changes to what has become a hugely popular scheme but which costs KCC £13.5m a year to run.
The new arrangements will save the county council at least £7m but will in turn push some of the financial burden on to families.
An Arriva bus in Maidstone
KCC says the charge for the pass for 11-16-year-olds will be pegged at £100 but that there will be a £350 limit stored on the card.
Once that has been spent, pupils will have to pay for further journeys themselves by topping up a smart card.
There will also be a cap for those who use the post-16 pass but the costs of buying the pass will be cut significantly from £520 to £100.
For older students, the cap will be set at £250 – a limit designed to take into account that many do not attend college or school five days a week.
The plans have been criticised by the UKIP opposition group at County Hall. It says that those children who live further away from their school could use up the £350 stored on the pass card in just one term.
It said KCC should consider halting some major road-building projects to subsidise the Freedom Pass.
“These proposals are going to make it a lot harder for a lot of parents and families. Some children will use that up in the first term,” said Cllr Mike Baldock.
The pass has proved popular since its introduction in 2007 but the costs to the county council have escalated to about £13.5m a year.
KCC says the pass will be replaced by a smart card with either £350 or £250 stored on it. Fares will be deducted each time a student makes a journey.
“These proposals are going to make it a lot harder for a lot of parents and families. Some children will use that up in the first term” - Cllr Mike Baldock
A report due to be discussed on Friday says allowing unlimited travel on the existing pass “creates a significant budget risk year on year” and introducing smart cards which have a limit will allow the council “greater budget certainty”.
Transport chiefs have been under pressure to do something to reduce the costs of the post-16 card.
A petition signed by 15,000 people to bring down the costs for post-16 students was presented to KCC in July.
At the time, council leader Paul Carter said: "We are a victim of our own success to a degree and we are already the most generous authority in the country so far as the scheme is concerned.
"I do have enormous sympathy with parents having to get their youngsters to school and sixth form colleges but we have got less money, not more money."
The changes are expected to come in from next September but there will be a review after six months.
Cllr David Brazier (Con), the council's cabinet member for transport, said cuts in government grants were behind the proposals.
"Both of these services are discretionary and are provided at a cost to the taxpayer. Like all of these things, we would prefer desperately not to have to make these savings.
"We obviously do not want to take money away from a service which is really popular, but we are where we are and it is the best we can do faced with making these savings."
He said those who faced having to pay for more journeys should consider "travelling less".
Cllr Brazier also warned that further changes might be needed if the savings target did not materialise. "It is not impossible", he said.
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