A drastic fall in trade caused by the decision to axe free tram travel for pensioners in Wyre will force people out of business, it has been claimed.
Traders today spoke of their fear as decision-makers are locked in a stand-off over who should foot the bill for concessionary tram travel – and called for immediate action.
Fresh talks over bringing back free travel for NoWcard holders appear unlikely as Wyre Council and Lancashire County Council stand firm over the issue.
County Hall has offered to share the cost of bringing back the subsidy – thought to be worth around £180,000 – with Wyre Council.
However, Wyre leader Peter Gibson insists any costs should be met by LCC and Blackpool Council, which are the transport authorities for their areas.
Fleetwood Chamber of Trade chairman Derek Eaton, who disputes Blackpool Council claims the minor drop in people using the trams is offset by a rise in people using the Number 1 bus, warned the lack of action could prove disastrous for the town.
He said: “Businesses are going to close. I have a real fear that will happen.
“Since they removed the concessionary fares on the trams, footfall has gone right down.
“It is the worst trading I have ever known, including when the tram tracks were dug up – it’s even worse than then.
“That is the really sad thing and it must be affecting traders in Blackpool too because nobody is going from Fleetwood to Blackpool. The trams are just running empty.
“Wyre Council has got its hands tied because it is not a transport authority but we have got an economic crisis facing us.”
He said pensioners would be happy to pay £1 to ride the trams, something Blackpool Council said is not possible due to legal restrictions, and called on council chiefs to act immediately to find a solution.
Deputy leader of LCC Coun David Borrow said tram travel is not covered by the government grant the council receives to fund concessionary transport.
He added: “We are prepared to share this cost but until Wyre decides it is important enough to put some money on the table there is not much point in meeting again.
“We have been in touch with Blackpool because their ticketing system would have to be tweaked to allow NoWcard holders in Wyre to travel on the trams for nothing – they said that can be done.
“Us putting money forward actually means council tax payers from the rest of Lancashire would be paying so Wyre residents can use the trams.”
But Coun Gibson said his repeated attempts to organise meetings to discuss alternative arrangements – including pensioners paying a nominal fee or having concessionary rates at certain times – had been ignored.
He said: “Until they are prepared to meet us, there’s nothing we can do.
“Wyre Council taxpayers already contribute so much to the LCC coffers that it would be unfair to pay twice.
“We don’t get any grants for this but LCC and Blackpool Council get grants for concessionary fares.
“LCC say they are going to fund concessionary fares on the buses but we must do it on the trams.”
Traders said something needs to be done soon to increase footfall in Fleetwood.
One market stall holder said: “Traders in the town have suffered for the past four or five years and now with the tram prices they are really feeling the pinch.”
Coun John Jones, Blackpool Council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, said: “Since the removal of NoWcards for non-Blackpool residents, we have only seen a very minor, 1 per cent, drop in the number of people using the trams but a huge rise, 150 per cent, 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.”