Traders say Fleetwood town centre is already starting to feel the effects of free tram travel being scrapped for pensioners who live outside Blackpool.
Derek Eaton, chairman of Fleetwood Chamber of Trade, and who runs a stationery shop, says trams which used to be full of visitors on market days and quite busy on other days are now coming into town almost empty. And it comes just a couple of months after £3,500 of new signage was put up in Fleetwood to direct visitors to main attractions in the town.
He believes the “dramatic reduction in footfall” is a direct result of the decision by Blackpool Council to end concessionary fares for all pensioners on trams except those who live in Blackpool, as of April 1 this year.
Blackpool Council insists the reduction in tram travel is minimal, claiming it is just a one per cent drop since April - and is more than compensated by an increase in people using the number 1 bus.
But Mr Eaton has disputed this and claims that his takings are down.
He said: “Before this happened, trade would fluctuate from £500 on a good day to about £100.
“Now, it’s flat, we’re making £100 a day on average, and that’s bad news for us.
“There has definitely been a change.”
Blackpool Council says it took the decision to end the free pensioners travel on trams because it can no longer afford to offer the concession to so many people - and claims this will now save the authority £700,000 a year.
But traders in Fleetwood are struggling to understand where such massive savings will come from.
Now they are pointing to an effect on visitors just two months into the controversial move by Blackpool.
Mr Eaton, who runs the Lighthouse Stationers on North Albert Street, said: “The number 1 bus is frequently so full that people are being left behind at the stop and don’t end up coming to Fleetwood.
“Blackpool Council aren’t putting on extra buses so passengers and traders aren’t feeling the benefit.”
Other traders, from both the high street and Fleetwood Market, agree there has been an affect on visitors numbers.
With Blackpool, Wyre and Lancashire County Councils yet to meet and discuss any possibilities of joint funding for the concession, Mr Eaton says there is a solution which would keep everyone happy.
He said: “Instead of travelling free, or paying the full £2.30, I think most pensioners would not mind paying a minimum change of £1 per journey.
“That would earn more money for the trams and would be a win-win situation. It has to be better than empty trams.”
Steve Lynton, at the Granada Fish Bar, said: “There are less pensioners coming in, without a doubt. Number 1 buses are too full and visitors can’t get on.
“I anticipated the drop-off of pensioners and have brought in promotions to attract young customers to compensate trade here.
“It is a shame because even more new Wyre Council signage is coming in, telling visitors where the market, the museum and the seafront are. But there are less visitors to benefit.”
At Foggs coffee house, also on North Albert Street, Frank and Jen Hill said: “Older customers from out of town are telling us they won’t come back.
“Fleetwood needs to encourage people to come in, and this isn’t helping. We are near the market and should be getting a lot more in than we are getting.”
And at Fleetwood Mark, Robert Brown, who runs Market Pet Supplies, said: “It has had an impact and it is very worrying.
“I think charging pensioners a pound per journey is a really good idea.”
Coun John Jones, Blackpool Council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, said: “Since the removal of NOW cards for non-Blackpool residents, we have only seen a very minor, 1%, drop in the number of people using the trams but a huge rise, 150%, in people using the number 1 bus.
“All in all, 28,000 more people used public transport along the seafront route between Starr Gate and Fleetwood in April than during the same period last year.
“The only change is that individuals are paying for it, and no longer relying on Blackpool Council rate payers to fund each and every journey. If Fleetwood businesses feel that they need help with concessionary travel, then it is down to Lancashire and Wyre Councils to come to a solution with them.
“I hope they understand why we cannot continue to ask Blackpool residents to pay for Wyre residents’ travel, especially at a time when the Government has slashed around £50m out of our budget over the last three years.
“On the issue of introducing a reduced fee, current legislation would not allow us to do that.”
There are currently two petitions trying to get the situation sorted out.
In one petition, Fleetwood residents, led by Angela Patchett, have called on Blackpool Council to change its mind about scrapping the concession.
And a fresh petition has been set up by Labour Parliamentary hopeful, Sam Rushworth, calling on Tory-run Wyre Council to pay its way and help fund a solution to the issue, which has caused a row between the councils.