Caroline Pidgeon AM
Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member
Keeping up with transport developments in London is always a challenge, but at the moment it is even more difficult due to a whole set of new problems and changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The increase in cycling; the importance of safety when travelling (for both passengers and staff); the long-term implications of the growth in home working and the fallout from the much delayed opening of Crossrail – these are all, of course, incredibly important issues.
However, just for now I want to concentrate on one specific policy change coming soon to London, the ending of free travel for under 18 year olds.
Free travel for children and young people has existed for many years in London.
In 2005 and 2006 children’s travel concessions were extended by Transport for London (TfL) to make bus and tram travel free for children and young people under the age of 18. Alongside that, TfL’s rail and Tube services were made free for children under the age of 11. However, all this is set to change.
TfL, just like other transport authorities around the country, has been facing immense economic difficulties. Since March, people have been instructed to stay at home where possible and avoid journeys unless absolutely necessary. However, maintaining a comprehensive transport service, when fare income has dropped like a stone, has huge financial implications.
It is against this background that TfL entered into a financial bailout deal with central government. For anyone who wants to see the full details they can be seen here (page 63).
One of the many conditions set by central government was this specific policy “the suspension of free travel for u18s, subject to discussions in the working group about how it is to be operationalised”. What this one sentence means is that almost certainly from September routine free travel for under 18 year olds will come to an end in London. Despite the policy being supposedly a ‘temporary’ change there is no clear indication of how long it will last.
Now, it is true some school children will still be entitled to free transport to school. There is a statutory obligation to provide free travel between home and school (but not at other times) where children meet a range of complex criteria which include:
- Distance from school (this can be the nearest school, most suitable school according to religious requirements, or one of three suitable schools in some cases)
- Family income (in receipt of full Working Tax Credit)
- Eligibility for free school meals
So if free transport for all children and young people is suspended from September there will be a huge task facing London Boroughs to administer a new system of selective free transport, and to do so in just a few weeks.
At the same time many families are going to face changing economic circumstances. Families facing redundancy and the prospect of applying for Universal Credit, will face a further burden to ensure they have secured free school transport for their children before schools and colleges fully re-open in September. And this is after weeks of home schooling and all the pressures from the shutdown.
But, most critically, the policy will have a serious impact on children and young people, especially those from low income households.
Taking part in sporting and other activities in the evenings and weekends will be more difficult for many young people. Family trips will suddenly become a financial challenge in some households.
The ending of free travel will especially hit many 16 and 17 year olds, as there is no legal requirement for free school or college travel for this age group. Attending sixth form or college will become a serious challenge, just at a time when it is most needed for many young people.
With so many disadvantages, why is such a policy being imposed on London? Afterall, free travel for under 18-year olds existed for the eight years Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, so why is his government now pulling it away from London’s young people? And why is such a detailed policy even being tagged on to a £1.6 billion bailout deal for TfL?
There are two reasons why Boris Johnson’s government is imposing this policy on London.
The first is the claim that London is supposedly treated more favourably than the rest of the country. Some Conservative MPs have even been quoted as saying it is wrong that free public transport exists in London when it doesn’t exist for other children and young people elsewhere. Sadly such a view merely highlights ignorance and an anti London bias increasingly being displayed by this Government. In fact free transport for children and young people does exist in other places, including Scotland.
The second argument to supposedly justify the policy is that ending free transport for children and young people will be beneficial by ensuring buses are not too crowded. However, clear caps on the number of people who can use buses now exist. The argument that in the past there were huge numbers of children and young people crowding on buses, only for very short journeys at peak hours, doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.
Of course we do need to see more active travel by children and young people – a big increase is needed. There is so much that needs to be done to make our roads safer and more attractive to encourage everyone to walk and cycle much more. And perhaps we need to think about staggering the starting times of schools and colleges come September.
Ripping away free public transport for under 18 year olds (at all times of the day) is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Incredibly, in defence of this policy, the Government claims there is academic research to back up their decision.
However, thanks to the work of Sarah Olney MP, that research has been tracked down and it actually highlights the immense benefits of free travel for under 18-year olds. In their arrogance the Government thought they could make misleading claims about research on free travel which they thought no one would bother reading.
The research report highlighted how free travel for u18s has reduced traffic casualties, increased bus travel and reduced car travel while not reducing the level of active travel by young people.
The research specifically stated that the “monetised benefits have substantially outweighed the costs, providing what the Department for Transport (DfT) considers ‘high’ value for money”.
In its conclusion it states: “There was qualitative evidence for benefits on social determinants of health, such as normalisation of bus travel, greater social inclusion and opportunities for independent travel. In the context of a good bus service, universal free bus travel for young people appears to be a cost-effective contributor to social inclusion and, potentially, to increasing sustainable transport in the long term.”
Children and young people have faced restrictions and real challenges in recent months, and especially those from low income households. The last thing they need is to have further problems created for them and their life opportunities further reduced.
For reasons of personal development and good mental health the ability of young people to travel is vital. For young people in London that definitely means full access to public transport. To deny that to young people, after the pain of the last few months, is indefensible.
And finally please help ensure our MPs are told that decisions relating to the transport options for London’s children and young people are best decided by Londoners and their elected Mayor and Assembly - and not Grant Shapps.
Caroline Pidgeon AM