IT is the hot debate that has got the Daily Echo mailbag bulging.

Councils in Hampshire and Southampton pay for pensioners’ to travel for free wherever they like and as often as they wish – and it could cost £18m next year.

But some Daily Echo readers have complained the scheme is to blame for operators being forced to axe loss-making services - and is unfair on fee-paying customers.

They have even called for bus passes to be taken away from wealthy elderly residents.

Not surprisingly, some angry pensioners say they are “spitting feathers” at the suggestion they are freeloading, or that their bus use is somehow responsible for firms having to cut under-used routes.

In Hampshire alone, the 240,000 people with bus passes, or concessionary travel vouchers, made more than 12 million journeys in the last year.

Although they don’t pay anything to get on buses, operators are compensated for carrying them by councils.

Earlier this week, Hampshire County Council signed off on the details of its £13m-a-year scheme to compensate bus firms for concessionary travel for eligible over-60s and the disabled.

And civic bosses in Southampton are next week expected to rubber stamp its version of the arrangement, which it expects will see the council hand over nearly £5m to bus companies for ferrying around pensioners over the next 12 months.

Much of the cash comes from government grants, but local authorities have to pick up additional costs if there is a higher-than-expected uptake, or the hours bus passes can be used are extended, as they are in Hampshire.

But in separate letters, two Daily Echo readers suggested the elderly should not be entitled to free bus passes.

One correspondent, who wished to remain anonymous, argued it is unfair for all pensioners to “get free travel on buses anytime, any day with no means testing when kids who have no income have to pay for bus travel”.

They suggested MPs should “have the guts to stand up to the grey voters” and think about the electors of the future, by redressing the imbalance that sees young people pay and old people travel for free.

The letter continued: “Along with heating allowance, free prescriptions and other discounts it is very unbalanced. I have no objection if they need it but the vast majority don’t.

“If the rich gave to the poor the poor would benefit more.”

The second reader, Christopher Darthall said he believed cuts to bus routes are a direct result of OAPs travelling for free.

Mr Darthall, from Southampton, said: “It is about time these pensioners started putting their hands in their pockets and started paying for bus fares instead of getting free buses.

“These bus companies at the end of the week have got to pay drivers’ wages, road tax, insurance, wear and tear of the bus tyres, water, diesel and oil.

“These pensioners think buses run on nothing. It is about time pensioners think of others not themselves when on the bus.”

Since 2006, over-60s have been allowed to travel for free between at least 9.30am and 11pm on Mondays to Fridays, and during extended hours on weekends and bank holidays.

Councils give cash to cover pensioners’ bus use, in a scheme the Government says should not benefit operators, or leave them out of pocket.

In Southampton, the expected £4.9m concessionary travel bill next year comes from reimbursing bus companies 48 per cent of all fees, as well as an additional flat charge for each journey started within the city boundary.

But bus firms complain they may be forced to put up prices for other customers to “subsidise” the elderly.

Operators complain their budgets are being put under huge strain because the amount of cash they receive for pensioners’ travel has dropped while fuel costs rocket.

The increase in fuel tax introduced in April is costing Bluestar alone an extra £433,000 a year, according to managing director Andrew Wickham.

The boss, who also heads sister companies Southern Vectis and Wilts & Dorset, said: “We don’t have any other way of generating revenue other than offering a good, comfortable and courteous service to passengers.

“So with a large percentage of our customers travelling at a low fixed price, we are naturally cautious when it comes to creating new, or adding to, services.

“Although we are still planning to develop our networks, a further reduction in the concession rate paid to operators for carrying older and disabled people could be a disaster for bus services.

“How long the bus industry will be able to absorb the unfair payments by the scheme without having to subsidise pensioners’ travel by increasing higher fare charges for younger passengers will remain to be seen.”

And government ministers have admitted bus passes for all could be axed in future.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith described them, along with free TV licences, as “anomalies” of the benefits system, and said they should be up for debate in future.

Although Prime Minister David Cameron has promised they will be safeguarded until the end of the current Parliament in 2015, there is no guarantee they would stay in place beyond then.

Penioners' anger at calls to scrap passes - click here