The government’s decision to end free Transport for London travel for under-18s will have serious consequences for young Londoners. The measure is said to be temporary and a start date for the suspension has not yet been fixed. Even so, the simple act of going to school, college or work is set to become a cost burden to be borne by families who can least afford it.
The so-called “bailout” for TfL – made necessary by the impact that the precipitous drop in fares income caused by Covid-19 has had on its balance sheet – comes with plenty of unpleasant strings attached. The saddling of TfL with an additional £505 million of debt when every other transport authority in the country has been given a debt-free bail out, reeks of unfairness. The suspension of free peak travel for Freedom Pass and 60+ card holders will increase hardship for thousands of poorer, older Londoners.
But the great unequaliser in this quagmire of punitive reforms is the removal of free travel for under-18s. I stand unequivocally in defence of the 60+ card, but the decision to remove only peak travel from those aged 60-64 (the majority of whom are in work, albeit often low paid), while taking all travel from children exposes this decision for what it is – not a considered exercise in cost-pruning, but an ill-considered and strikingly political attack on the powerless.
The majority of school and college students will still be at home for the foreseeable future, so cutting away the travel options of those who do need to go in will hardly generate a great swell of additional income. We’re seeing a whole generation immobilised for the sake of a few thousand bus fares.
Will this end up being a permanent move? Will children in quiet parts of London be expected to walk up to three miles to school in the winter? Will cash-strapped local authorities be required to pick up the bill for longer-distance journeys? All we can say for certain is that with Year 6 now back and Years 10 and 12 due to return from 15 June, the government is subjecting thousands of young Londoners to the purgatory of not knowing how they’ll pay for essential travel. And if it really is concerned to get kids back to school to close the educational gap, why on earth put an additional barrier in their way?
Families elsewhere in England may understandably counter this with the point that their children don’t benefit from such a perk. I can only state that I consider the absence of free kids’ travel in the rest of England to be an injustice, and not one that can be fixed by instigating a race to the bottom, at odds with their much trumpeted “levelling up”. Indeed, this should serve as a warning to families outside the capital – if Whitehall is prepared to deprive public transport of funds and make travelling more expensive here in London, then they’re prepared to do so elsewhere in the country too.
One in five London pupils rely on the bus to get to school. A further three percent take the Tube or train. That may not sound like many, but it translates to about 320,000 children. It’s estimated that the yearly bill for free under-18s travel covered by TfL up till now is £190 million. Whether its London’s boroughs or London’s families who end up paying it instead, it’s clear the threat of increased hardship is looming.
London also suffers appalling pollution and while the excellent work in the capital to expand walking and cycling space will undoubtedly encourage more to choose ‘”active travel” on the school run, the attack on the Zip card will inevitably result in more motor vehicle traffic too. Who could blame a parent turning to car use when the alternative is to be wracked with concerns for your child’s safety on a long walk alone? Air pollution already contributes to nigh-on 10,000 excess deaths in the capital annually, and when faced with a virus whose symptoms are exacerbated by poor air quality, a decision likely to generate more traffic on our roads frankly beggars belief.
And here’s the reality that makes this cut so egregious. One in four children in London live in persistent poverty, 76 per cent of them from working families. A further 80,000 children have been pushed into poverty since 2013/14, and with the financial impact of Covid-19 threatening one of the worst recessions this country has ever seen, we can only expect that figure to grow.
Our system is a poverty trap. Almost 20,000 London families have been hit by the benefit cap. Every one of the four local authorities with the highest rates of child poverty nationally can be found right here in the capital. Families choose between eating and heating. The Trussell Trust handed out 166,512 three-day emergency food parcels in our city in 2018/19. Over 90,000 children are in temporary accommodation.
I could go on. Has it completely escaped the grasp of ministers that many families simply don’t have any cash to spare? That the consequence of this decision may well be that children will struggle to attend school? That far from saving money it will simply push more people into poverty? The government needs to hear this and understand the consequences of such a short-sighted decision. It’s not too late for a change of heart.
Alison Moore is a Labour Londonwide London Assembly Member.
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