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Free public transport for pensioners under threat

Stormont budget impasse jeopardising free transport

By Noel McAdam

The future of free public transport for senior citizens could be in jeopardy because of the stalemate over spending on the Stormont Executive.

And ministers' failure to cut a deal on departmental budgets could also hit the shared future plans and small-scale schemes to revitalise a number of towns in the province.

Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy yesterday admitted the £9m allocated to provide free public transport for the over-60s was in question.

"I think the fundamental challenge to the Executive is will it maintain a concessionary fare scheme paid for in full by the Executive? I am a huge supporter of the scheme and I will be battling hard to retain it as an Executive priority," the Ulster Unionist minister said.

The concessionary travel scheme has been run by Translink on buses and trains for more than six years.

Older People's Commissioner Claire Keatinge said: "If the free transport scheme is revoked, thousandsof people on low incomes will find themselves without any means of continuing to live as independently as they would wish.

"With many pensioners living in poverty, thiswill have a very negative impact on their quality of life."

But Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's year-old project aimed at building a more shared future could also be hit by the Executive's stand-off.

The First and Deputy First Ministers' office has made a capital bid of £3.2m to develop their plans for 10 shared housing neighbourhoods – part of their Building a United Community blueprint.

And a £1.9m scheme aimed at boosting town centres including Ballynahinch, Limavady, Antrim and Randalstown could also be in doubt after ministers failed to reach agreement on the quarterly share-out of money left unspent by departments.

After their meeting on Tuesday Mr Robinson warned that a total of £80m of money for potential capital projects could have to be handed back to the London Treasury.

The monitoring round has come under extreme pressure also because the Treasury has begun to impose penalties on the province's block grant over the failure of ministers to agree to implement welfare reform.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has written to all departments warning that unless the stand-off over changes to the benefits system between the DUP and Sinn Fein can be resolved, departments would have to face across-the-board cuts of 1.5 %.

Factfile

First Minister Peter Robinson warned the Executive could have to hand back £80m for capital projects to the Treasury if ministers cannot resolve their budget. In addition, fines already being imposed on the Executive over the failure to implement welfare reform amount to more than £34m so far.

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