Norfolk Council u-turn on concessions for the blind

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£51,000 of funding to be provided for free travel before statutory minimum of 0930hrs

Blind and visually impaired people in Norfolk will be able to get round the clock free bus travel, after a last minute u-turn by the council.

As reported in CBW1018, Norfolk County Council, which took over responsibility from district councils for concessionary bus travel last April, had removed an extra morning hour of free bus travel for pass holders.

Blind people had said the decision to take away the extra hour placed them at a disadvantage, with many relying on buses before 0930hrs to get them to work, to hospital appointments, to college or around shops before they got too busy.

The council’s cabinet scrutiny committee urged their leaders to think again, but the controlling Conservative cabinet had said it could not make an exception for the blind, because it might lead to a legal challenge from other groups.

However, after a meeting on Monday, January 16, council leader Derrick Murphy announced a way had been found to fund 24-hour bus travel for the blind and visually impaired, along with companion passes for eligible disabled people.

Mr Murphy said, because blind and visually impaired people had been especially disadvantaged and already lose out on other benefits because of inequalities, it was the “right thing to do” to spend £51,000 to ensure they and companions could get free bus travel.

He said: “We have listened carefully to all the arguments put forward.

“It is clear to us that blind and visually impaired concessionary travel pass holders have been especially disadvantaged by the loss of these discretionary enhancements and experience more disadvantages than other groups because of inequalities in benefit provision and social care eligibility.

“Few blind people can claim the higher rate mobility component of the Disability Living allowance, which is worth an extra £30 a week.

“This is a significant amount to people who are often on low incomes and who face the additional costs of being disabled. Blind and visually impaired people often have the same or greater need for support with travel.

“What’s more, many blind and visually impaired people cannot claim support with transport through a Personal Budget. Having considered these special factors, I am convinced restoring the 24 hour FirstGroup’s net cash at the end of its financial year could be £40m below predictions due to a poor market for selling assets pass and reintroducing companion passes is the right thing to do.”

Chris Maule-Oatway, from the Norfolk and Norwich Association of the Blind, which has campaigned for the free travel, said: “We are delighted. We always felt if we plugged away they would listen.”

A spokesman for the charity added: “We are delighted at this decision which will restore dignity and independence to those who rely on bus transport in their everyday lives.

“This change of heart shows councillors are prepared to listen to reasoned argument and accept our assertion that their original decision was having a disproportionate impact on blind people.

“Allowing registered blind people to travel without cost before 0930hrs will make a massive difference.

“We are proud to have championed this issue on behalf of some of Norfolk’s most vulnerable people, and pleased that even in these challenging financial times there is a place not just for compassion but for common sense among our councillors.”