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Clash over estimated cost of Aberdeen Labour’s free bus pledge has officials going round and round

The cost of Aberdeen Labour's free bus scheme is a matter of some debate. Image supplied by Michael McCosh/DCT Media
The cost of Aberdeen Labour's free bus scheme is a matter of some debate. Image supplied by Michael McCosh/DCT Media

Officials are at odds over how many millions Labour’s election promise to make bus travel free will cost Aberdeen council.

The party has pledged to wipe out costs for Granite City residents aged 22 to 59, who miss out on national bus pass schemes.

They say the scheme will give residents a “huge helping hand” in dealing with the cost of living crisis.

But with only 15 candidates – eight short of majority – the policy would require cross-party support after next week’s local election.

If introduced, Aberdeen would become the first city in Britain to offer free bus travel to all its citizens.

Labour’s estimated annual cost of free bus travel for all Aberdeen residents

Pressed for answers after eye-watering potential costs were seen by The P&J, Labour candidates revealed the scheme would  “likely cost” £12.7m a year.

That’s based on 30,000 22 to 59-year-olds using buses five days a week.

Buses rolling through Market Street bus gate on Aberdeen's Union Street. Picture by Chris Sumner/DCT Media.
Buses rolling through Market Street bus gate on Aberdeen’s Union Street. Picture by Chris Sumner/DCT Media.

But a hoped 15% increase in use – an extra 4,500 journeys – would add another £2m to the bill.

At most, Aberdeen Labour is braced for it to all total £16m a year, the P&J can reveal.

In coming up with a price, Labour has assumed First Bus and Stagecoach would charge the local authority the same rate as has been negotiated nationally for over-60s and disabled people.

While free for passengers, the taxpayer pays a reduced rate per journey of 55.9% of a full adult fare.

Labour’s sums are based on a rate of 56.5%.

Top Aberdeen official backs Labour’s free bus plans

And Rob Polkinghorne, the council’s chief operating officer, has stepped into the election debate to stand up Labour’s plans.

He told The P&J: “My sense is that the cost for offering free bus travel would be in the bracket of £12.7 million to £16 million.

“Obviously this would depend on usage numbers and also what could be commercially negotiated.

“If the contract is offering a 100% degree of certainty for bus operators around income then it would place the council in a strong negotiating position.

“But until such time as those negotiations could be undertaken, estimates are all that can be provided on what would be the likely uptake in usage.”

Will bus companies cut the council the same deal?

But, as the BBC reported in January, under the terms of the under-22 travel card, bus rides by five to 15-year-olds cost the taxpayer 43.6% of an adult fare, and older passengers aged up to 21 are charged at 81.2%.

His input is also directly at odds with his own officials in the council’s passenger transport unit (PTU)…

They have told councillors it would be “reasonable” to assume the city would be charged more than the over-60s scheme.

A bus passes Aberdeen City Council HQ at Marischal College, Broad Street. Picture by Jim Irvine/DCT Media.
A bus passes Aberdeen City Council HQ at Marischal College, Broad Street. Picture by Jim Irvine/DCT Media.

An internal briefing – seen exclusively by The P&J – outlined potential costs soaring from around £30m, to £51.3m, or even an unlikely £97.3m.

The document states Aberdeen could need to pay “closer to 100% of an adult fare to ensure sustainability” for the bus firms.

Above all else, it highlights how local authority staff have little idea of the cost, how they might calculate it or how the local scheme would be rolled out.

“Working out a cost is quite difficult, because it is hard to see what the uptake would be,” they added.

Their £30m estimate covers the full cost of the near 10.5m fares on the First Bus network in 2017/18, which is the last year there are figures for.

That sum is already equivalent to the huge chunk of the city’s budget that councillors were forced to slash last month.

And bus usage – and therefore cost –  would be expected to rise further still in Aberdeen Labour successfully abolished ticket costs.

Aberdeen Labour’s free bus pledge ‘affordable and realistic’, claims lead candidate

Other options – already ruled out by all involved – include issuing all eligible residents with a bus pass, which would cost upwards of £97.3m every year.

Additional risk was identified by the council’s in-house bus experts if Transport Scotland doesn’t share its national smart ticketing system.

The PTU forecasts “significant” costs associated with Aberdeen setting up its own.

Aberdeen Labour deputy group leader Ross Grant said the free bus travel pledge was "affordable and realistic". Picture by Paul Glendell/DCT Media.
Aberdeen Labour deputy group leader Ross Grant said the free bus travel pledge was “affordable and realistic”. Picture by Paul Glendell/DCT Media.

But Aberdeen Labour group deputy leader Ross Grant stood by his group’s estimate as “affordable and realistic”.

He said guaranteed income from the scheme – against the bus firm’s existing staff and running costs – would place Aberdeen in the driving seat of any negotiation.

Tillydrone, Seaton and Old Aberdeen candidate Mr Grant told The P&J: “We have costed the proposal, on the basis of the latest available data for fare-paying passenger journeys, the current level of reimbursement used by the Scottish Government in the existing concessionary fare schemes, and ambitious targets to increase passenger numbers in the 22-to-59 age group by at least 15%.

“We believe it would give Aberdonians a huge helping hand in meeting the cost-of-living crisis.

“The current level of reimbursement provided by the Scottish Government is where that negotiation might start, although is not necessarily where it will end up.”

You can find a full list of candidates standing for election to Aberdeen City Council here.

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