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Free Bus Passes, Cost Overruns, Supermarket Tax
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Most clued-up tourists arrive at Edinburgh airport then take the Airlink bus that stops at Haymarket and George Street before terminating at the Waverley station. It costs £3.50, or £6.00 return and takes all of 30 minutes. A taxi sets you back about £12 to £15, saves about 5 minutes, and their rank is about as far from the terminal as possible.

Few people seem to know they can meander to the bus stop nearest arrivals (about ten metres) then hop on the 35 bus. £1.30 will take you all the way through Edinburgh, kicking in some of the prime South Side tourist spots plus the Parliament building before depositing you at Ocean Terminal, where you can go see the Royal Yacht Britannia. It takes about an hour and forty minutes and, for a tourist, it gets a pile of photo's locked and loaded on day one and, to top it off, a £3.20 day ticket allows you to hop on any bus anywhere until midnight.

One thing you'll notice is very few people pay cash when they get on the bus, they stick a card on a scanner and when it beeps they meander in. Mainly they're senior citizens, sometimes they're not.

From 1 April 2006, if you're 60 and have a property in Scotland, you're entitled to a free bus pass. That lets you get on any bus anywhere for any distance at any time for free. Intercity travel is included, so if you want to pop over to Edinburgh from Glasgow to do a spot of sightseeing or to meet friends, just grab a bus, scan your pass and sit back while the driver handles the frustration of negotiating all those nasty bottlenecks, road works and such. Unlike their counterparts in England, there's none of this business of reaching the pensionable age for women, nor of being restricted to off-peak travel(1).

The great thing about this is buses are clean, punctual, reasonably comfortable and the fleet is always being improved. Even if you have to pay cash to get on a bus £1.30 is about the same as a litre of petrol and there's none of the hassle of trying to find a parking space, nor of coughing up £1.00 for 10 minutes to park at a metered bay.

And it's been a winner, even at 10.00 o'clock at night, far more people use the buses than was the case five years ago. From an environmental standpoint it's a no brainer; buses run anyway and a free bus pass encourages card holders to leave their cars at home. In some cases they've flogged the thing, which is a welcome relief in the present financial climate and allows them to avoid that dreaded visit to the doctor to get their "fit to drive" chitty.

Scottish Labour thought this one up as a ploy to get re-elected (yet sealed their fate 26 days later when they brought in the smoking ban) however, politics being what it is, the original idea of social inclusion for the aged got messed around, so they kicked in a whole bunch of others, the seriously ill, those with a terminal illness, volunteers and even those who accompany the very old. Then they went far further and awarded two free return ferry tickets every year to the mainland for every youth and 60 year old who lives on any Scottish island.

One thing about folk is they'll find a way to turn this largess to their advantage. Bus drivers don't have time to scrutinize every single pass, so most don't even try. They probably have an inkling that some teenager may be using their grandparents card but they could be a perfectly legitimate volunteer or companion to the very old who's going home. Most drivers have enough on their plate without being fussed with people cheating the system so, if the scanner beeps, that's fine they've been paid - job done. On those very rare occasions when a driver insists on seeing the photo ID the punter has a choice, leave the bus or cough up £1.30 to the driver.

Bus companies are reported to be milking the system as well, especially long haul operators that issue a ticket for a destination far distant from that requested by the the card holder(2).

These passes are not free by any stretch of the imagination, every single scan gets recorded and the bus companies get automatic reimbursement from the Scottish government. £200 million in 2010 and that may rise to over £500 million by 2025. That's an insanely high figure when compared to the population as a whole (5.2 million). Actually it pans out at around £75 per taxpayer, as at 2010, and all for 1.1 million free passes(3).

Of course this is Scotland where virtually everything is grossly underestimated, supervised by incompetents and unbelievably expensive to administer. The cost of administering the scheme alone came to £42 million last year - 4 times what was budgeted. Kick in "phantom usage" and the amount bled from the system is well over 25% of the total. To date not one head has rolled.

That's fine when the bill's being picked up by Westminster, however the system's been in place for 5½ years and it's obvious that, aside from helping old people get around, they too are using it to their advantage. Understandably they're hopping a bus to get the best deals in town; people who used to shop locally are now using their new found freedom to access a wide range of supermarkets where they can find far more choice and cheaper prices than they could ever imagine in their local High Street. They'll quite happily spend time to get items like pet food and toilet rolls - and the Pound Shops are their favourites, especially for anything to do with household cleaning products.

Local shops are perfectly aware of what's going on and they've been very forthcoming with their politicians. Small village shops have been creamed, while those in Edinburgh are still seething at the loss of business caused by the tram works and now feel they've been dealt a double blow because OAP's have been empowered to shop elsewhere. There's a lot of angst out there.

There's no way they can continue to pay for this and still maintain front line services so, in their wisdom, they've decided to try to claw something back - an estimated £36 million a year - from large supermarkets. It's a tax, no more or less, however they've tried to justify this by claiming it's because they sell cheap booze and shave a couple of pence off a pack of 20 cigarettes. Their logic being that the tax can be raised very easily if they charged the same as everyone else for those two product lines.

It's been very badly thought through, yet the SNP has a huge majority and it was in their manifesto, so there's every likelihood it'll become law at some point. Yet the greatest users of large supermarkets are those who use their cars to get there, then shop for the family for a week and fill the tank at the same time. Supermarkets are not well pleased at any of this and have mounted a spirited counter offensive. It'll be fun to watch(4).

Some claims made against supermarket chains do hold up; whenever they open a satellite store such as a Sainsbury's Local or Tesco Express, they charge far more than their bigger brothers, yet still manage to undercut local shops and what they've done for rural petrol stations is kill them - stone dead (check out Cupar, Fife). Another thing that didn't help was a statement by Tesco that, despite the minimum unit of alcohol, they will continue to supply Scottish customers who order on-line with any special offer they have on booze by delivering from an English warehouse.

Unfortunately this is just a stopgap measure and only puts off the inevitable. Free bus passes are all well and good in theory, but they interfere with the free market. The cost of transport is a crucial element in any discretionary spend, leaving those without the means to access public or private transport with less choice locally and yet higher prices. In short, it hits the least well off - very hard.

There's no way they can continue to dish them out at age 60 because Scotland's demographics show we're smack in the middle of the Post War Baby Boomers (1943 - 1956) hitting pensionable age, so Labour's timing couldn't have been worse. At some point they'll have to accept that rural bus services and island ferry services can be subsidised just as effectively by increasing the minimum age to 65 and raise that in line with the pensionable age. They can kick in caveats that make sense such as issuing them to anyone over the age of 60 who scraps or sells their car, then hands in their driving license, or who never had one in the first place.

If the supermarkets have benefited tremendously because of the free bus pass, don't blame them. They do a splendid job of keeping prices for food staples close to universal throughout the UK; something we've grown used to. Expecting them to simply hike the price of booze and tobacco in Scotland by a couple of pence doesn't come close to generating the kind of money you want from them. The only way they can ever hope to cover this is by increasing their prices for fuel - and they're the market leader for cheap fuel. The SNP has no defacto right to single out one specific segment of the retail market for special treatment; they're all listed companies with shareholders and, as they rightly point out, your interference will affect investment decisions. No it's not just the big supermarkets, it's everything from chip manufacturers through to Naan bread factories(5). They're all very wary of being the next target to fund your great giveaways.

The Chancellor wasn't playing politics when he said your antics with the "referendum" is having a negative affect on investment decisions. You guys tried to paint this as unwarranted interference, yet the simple truth is you haven't a clue about the free market(6) and you're woefully inept at managing anything; from the parliament building, the Edinburgh tram, the second Forth crossing, the Homecoming, home health care and now free bus passes. It's pathetically disingenuous to spin your tax as some sort of health issue, especially when your stated aim is to reduce the consumption of booze and tobacco! If supermarket sales do collapse, one thing they can be certain of is your tax will never go down.

The Scots know full well that many pledges made during the election campaign were ill-considered and impossible to fund however, based on the evidence turned up with free bus passes, it seems that the problem lies not with the money we receive from Westminster, rather it lies with incompetent administrators and woefully inadequate legislators. Sort the problem at source and quit expecting others to pay for your cock-ups.

(1) Full details of free passes and discounts for youths in Scotland.
(2) Claims of excess fare charges are in the comments section.
(3) Daily Telegraph article on present costs and future projections.
(4) Herald article on supermarkets plan of action.
(5) Scotland is too expensive to manufacture Naan bread.
(6) Having created a viciously hostile environment for private investors, on 20/11/11 John Swinney tries to persuade the Chancellor to give SNP £2 billion to spend as they see fit.

November 2011

Other posts that may interest:
"Caw Canny Chooks" details some of the more valuable pledges made by SNP to buy their victory at the May 2011 election.