Free transport for over-60s ‘at risk’

Translink buses in Belfast
Translink buses in Belfast

Free public transport for people over 60 may be under threat due to funding shortages, according to Transport Minister Danny Kennedy.

The scheme costs an annual £30 million but at present there is a shortfall of £9 million.

The UUP minister said the issue had come under scrutiny during departmental funding reviews at the Stormont Executive.

“I am constrained from what I can say but I do have concerns this issue is coming under pressure,” he told the News Letter last night.

“I am reminding people that this has widespread support and is widely used by people, with great benefits for local economies.

“It has particularly strong support among older people.”

The Commissioner for Older People, Claire Keatinge, urged the Executive to protect the scheme, highlighting how “many older people across Northern Ireland rely on free transport to ensure that they can continue to engage with their community and enjoy a social life”.

Mr Kennedy said that the funding “remains an Executive decision”.

The minister said that pressure on the matter is linked to ongoing debate at the Executive over welfare reform.

Sinn Fein’s veto of welfare reform is costing the Executive more than £5 million a month in Treasury fines.

Mr Kennedy said that issue was a factor in the debate.

“Yes, this is in part linked to the debate on welfare reform. These issues are fairly critical.

“The scheme costs £30 million per year to administer as part of the annual allocation. I want to continue that but there is a £9 million shortfall.”

The minister said he did not want to be told to start prioritising his budgets and to cut something else in order to maintain the scheme.

First Minister Peter Robinson has warned that unspecified projects face being suspended or ended due to financial pressures.