English councils claim they are being forced to “prop up” private bus operators.
The Local Government Association (LGA) said the situation has been caused by an emergency Government coronavirus measure and is “unsustainable”.
Free off-peak bus travel is a legal entitlement for people aged over 65 or those with a disability, with councils having a statutory duty to administer the scheme.
Local authorities are being ordered by the Government to maintain payments to operators at pre-pandemic levels despite usage falling by more than two-thirds during the crisis, according to the LGA.
The association warned that the way the concessionary travel scheme is funded by Whitehall has “long been unfit for purpose”, with councils having to make up an annual £700 million funding gap.
LGA transport spokesman David Renard said: “Councils want to work with the Government to improve and protect bus provision during the crisis and beyond, but it is increasingly clear that it is unsustainable to ask councils to continue to prop up local bus operators for a national scheme that is already underfunded.
“The free bus pass provides a vital service for our communities.
“It allows many vulnerable residents to go shopping, pick up medication, and attend doctors’ appointments.
“Years of underfunding of the scheme has left councils struggling to subsidise the scheme.
“This is now increasingly impossible amid pre-existing funding and demand pressures on local services, some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Graham Vidler, chief executive of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents the bus industry, said “now is not the time to be reducing the level of investment” as this would risk creating a “poorer service for passengers”.
He went on: “Despite passenger numbers being at around 60% of normal, operators have worked closely with local authorities to run a near full network.
“Maintaining this level of service requires investment from central and local government and ensures that concessionary pass holders and other passengers can travel when and where they need to.
“At this critical stage in the pandemic the focus must be on keeping the buses running so that people can continue to move around safely and keep cars off our roads.”
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “Buses are vital for connecting people, homes and businesses, and concessionary bus travel is a lifeline for many older people who can use it to get to shops more safely and peacefully before rush hour.
“We have provided unprecedented support to ensure that bus services can continue to operate for everyone who needs to them during the pandemic, committing over £1.1 billion this financial year.”