ABOUT 1,000 women in County Durham could be eligible for free bus travel earlier than currently expected.

Durham County Council is considering a proposal to introduce the free bus pass to women who were born between 6 December, 1953 and 5 November, 1954 from March.

The scheme is aimed at alleviating financial hardship for women most affected by the Government’s changes to the state pension age.

Councillor Carl Marshall, cabinet member for economic regeneration, said: “We know changes to the state pension age, implemented by Government, have left some women in County Durham in financial hardship.

“This is through no fault of their own but because of a lack of notice that money they had been expecting to receive at a certain time would be delayed. By introducing a concessionary bus travel scheme, we hope to reduce some of the financial pressure this has resulted in.”

Campaigners involved in the group Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) do not disagree with proposals to equal the state pension age but say the changes have been implemented unfairly, due to the process being sped up by 2011 legislation.

About 35,000 women in County Durham have been affected by changes to the state pension, with about 3,000 born within the qualifying time period.

Some already qualify for the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme (ENCTS), which provides free, off-peak bus travel, but this proposal would allow an estimated 1,000 women to have the same benefit, though it would be limited to journeys which start or finish in County Durham.

The council says it is “cost prohibitive” to extend the scheme to all women affected by pension changes because it would cost more than £1m.

Sylvia O'Brien, 66, from Spennymoor, who is involved in the Durham Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) said: "It would be brilliant for the WASPI women of Durham. A lot don't have other transport to start with so they do rely on buses.

"We always have people, especially in the outlying areas like Stanhope, who can't come to meetings because they can't afford to because of the price of the bus.

"It would be nice to have something instead of nothing at all. They were expecting a pension at 60 and with that comes the bus pass and the cold weather payment. It all mounts up.

"It will make a big difference to them. It made a big difference to me."

She added: "It would be great if all the WASPI women could get it - they should get it. These women have worked all their lives - often since they were 15 or 16."

Discussions have been held with Nexus, the transport authority for Tyne and Wear, to see if it could be expanded across the region.

If approved by the council's cabinet next week, travel concessions would begin on March 1.

By November 5, all the women affected will have reached the statutory pension age and will qualify for free travel under the ENCTS scheme.

This scheme has been forecast to cost about £56,500