The Government’s plan to suspend free youth travel on Transport for London services will place a new funding burden on London boroughs, the capital’s mayor has warned.
The suspension was included as part of the Covid-19 financial aid package for Transport for London announced by the Government last month (LTT 29 May).
A DfT spokeswoman this week confirmed to LTT that the suspension would be temporary but did not say when it would begin or end. “The decision regarding under-18 travel is a temporary measure to help reduce the risk of overcrowding on the transport network to tackle the spread of the virus. As part of the deal, the concession for children eligible under national legislation for free home to school travel will continue. “We look forward to seeing TfL’s operational plan by 10 June.”
In his letter to the mayor confirming the TfL rescue package, transport secretary Grant Shapps told Khan the suspension of free youth travel was “subject to discussions about how it is to be operationalised”.
Khan wrote back to Shapps on 29 May urging him to rethink the policy and warning that the suspension would place a new cost burden on London boroughs. Local authorities are under a statutory obligation to provide free home to school travel where children meet a range of criteria such as on age, distance from school and income.
“This obligation falls on local authorities rather than Transport for London, although it is TfL that has historically provided and paid for under-18s concessionary travel,” said Khan.
“We believe that around 30 per cent of children who currently travel to school by bus are eligible statutorily for free travel, which means costs to boroughs would be significant.
“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever.”
Khan also warned of the “bureaucratic and technical complexity involved in removing existing concessions while continuing to meet statutory obligations”.
Shapps wrote back to Khan on 3 June, reiterating the intention to withdraw the free travel. Khan replied on 8 June. City Hall supplied LTT with a copy of his letter this week, which gives interesting insights into how the policy emerged at the 11th hour of negotiations over the funding package.
“The first point at which anyone from the Government raised this issue with me, my deputy mayor [Heidi Alexander], or TfL officials was late on Monday 11 May, when a draft agreement was shared by DfT officials with TfL – two days before the negotiations had to be concluded.
“The insertion of this condition came as a total surprise to us after six weeks of discussions where the subject of free travel for children and young people was not mentioned.
“You have never mentioned this issue to me in person, nor did you raise it in your 25-minute call with my deputy mayor on Sunday 10 May. Instead it was crowbarred into the agreement at the last minute by Number 10 officials – I have to assume acting on the wishes of the Prime Minister personally.”
Khan has told TfL officials to provide Shapps “with a summary of the technical constraints with regard to how quickly any changes could be implemented, and to work with local authorities about how a system to verify eligibility or free school travel might be set up”.
He tells Shapps: “As this initiative is your proposal alone, however, it will be for you to set out the following:
A DfT spokeswoman told LTT: “We reject the claim that identifying those children eligible for free home-to-school travel creates an unacceptable administrative burden, since all councils outside London already do it (and those within London already do it for children who need free Tube or rail travel to school).”
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