A consultation on changes to the Northern Ireland Concessionary Fares Scheme has been launched by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI).
The 12-week public consultation will review eligibility for the Scheme, which has not changed since 2008.
The scheme aims to promote accessible public transport for those most at risk of social exclusion and currently allows older people (60+) and some disabled people to travel for free or at a discounted rate using a SmartPass.
Changes being considered include raising the age of eligibility for concessionary fares to either 65 or state pension age. This change, which would apply to existing users and new applicants, would bring Northern Ireland into line with England and the Republic of Ireland.
Other options include limiting SmartPass use to off-peak travel. This change would mean that a SmartPass would no longer permit people to travel before 09.30 on weekdays (Mondays to Fridays).
The Department is also consulting on extending eligibility to include free travel for disabled people who currently qualify for a half fare SmartPass and a companion pass for disabled people who qualify for a pass and are unable to travel alone.
Aspects of the scheme that will be reviewed as part of the 12-week consultation include:
- Raising the age of eligibility
- Limiting SmartPass use to off-peak travel
- Limiting SmartPass use to bus-only travel
- The introduction of application, renewal and replacement fees
- Free travel for those in receipt of a half-fare concession due to a qualifying disability
- Companion passes for disabled people unable to travel alone
- Extending qualifying criteria for a half-fare SmartPass
- Free transport for those receiving asylum support and victims of human trafficking
- Changes to residence test
- Proving residency.
Any changes that would increase the total costs of the Scheme would require additional budget cover.
The cost of the scheme has continued to rise significantly since 2010/11 for a number of reasons including increased fares and an increase in the eligible population entitled to the age-related concession.
In 2022/23 the Scheme cost £39m and DfI estimates the cost of the Scheme will rise to £44.6m in 2023/24 – due to continued passenger number recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic and fare increases. Estimations indicate the cost could further rise to more than £52m by 2030.
A DfI spokesperson said: “We recognise the importance of the scheme and the benefits it brings to those who use their SmartPass to travel on public transport. However, the cost of the Scheme has increased significantly and we anticipate it will continue to rise. With that in mind we are looking at all options to ensure the scheme will continue to promote social inclusion, without impacting the delivery of public transport services or other services the department provides.
“No decisions have been made yet. We are keen to hear from the public, representative groups and others on how the proposed changes might affect them. We also want to hear view on how the scheme might operate in the future. Our priority is to ensure that it is affordable and at the same time, targeted at those who need it most.”
The public consultation is available here: https://www.infrastructure-ni.gov.uk/consultations/consultation-changes-concessionary-fares-scheme
Following the consultation all submissions will be analysed before recommendations are made to the Minister for Infrastructure. Should there continue to be an absence of Ministers, approval will be considered taking into account the decision-making framework set out in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Act 2022 or relevant legislation in place at the time.