MORE than a third of pensioners in Hampshire have not taken up their free bus passes, figures reveal.

Charity Age UK says bus passes can be a lifeline for older people, helping them retain independence and good health.

Elderly and disabled people in England are entitled by law to free bus travel during off-peak times under the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme.

Department for Transport figures show 199,242 elderly people in Hampshire had a bus pass in 2018-19, just 65% of the eligible population.

A further 22,168 passes were taken up by people with disabilities.

Together, they made 10.8 million journeys throughout the year, an average of 49 per pass holder.

Age UK says concessionary travel for older or disabled people has wider economic benefits, helping people be active in their communities and reducing loneliness.

Across England, 9.1 million people had access to a pass under the ENCTS during 2018-19.

Age UK director Caroline Abrahams said: "The free bus pass is a real lifeline for many older and disabled people who would otherwise find themselves stranded at home and unable to afford to go out.

"Older people who are able to get out and about and stay engaged with their communities have a better chance of retaining their health and independence for longer."

Councils in England spent £1.1 billion on concessionary travel over the year, 79% of which went on the ENCTS.

The scheme is funded via a central government grant, but councils say this funding does not stretch far enough, and that they are forced to make up the shortfall.

The Local Government Association says this diverts money that could be spent on concessions for other groups, or on subsidies for less popular bus routes that are at risk of being discontinued.

It said: "The number of bus journeys is at its lowest level in over a decade shows that more needs to be done to improve local services.

“Councils want to work with the Government to protect local bus services, which can be a lifeline for our most vulnerable residents, whether that is to go shopping, collect medication, attend doctor appointments or socialise with friends.

"It is vital the Government properly funds [the ENCTS] so councils can protect bus routes and reinvest in local networks."

Youth concessions are also available in Hampshire, but these are offered by bus operators directly and not the council.

In May, the House of Commons transport committee warned that bus services were being put at risk by inadequate funding, after hearing evidence that councils were forking out up to £650 million a year to keep the ENCTS running.

A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “This Government has committed to expanding better bus services, providing local authorities with funding to support £1 billion of spending on the free bus pass scheme, helping older and disabled people.

“We recently announced a £220 million package to transform services across the country by making journeys greener, easier and more reliable."