Route 660 - school bus
Councils would have to pay for many children’s school travel if fares are reintroduced

London’s 32 borough councils want the government to scrap the suspension of free travel for under-18s, complaining that it will cost them £16 million and will be impossible to administer before the new school year.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps imposed the condition two weeks ago as part of a £1.6 billion bailout of Transport for London, whose finances have been shattered by the coronavirus pandemic and the collapse in travel.

Neither London mayor Sadiq Khan, who chairs TfL, nor the government published full details of the bailout until yesterday, when TfL released board papers outlining the government’s demands in exchange for the cash, which include “the suspension of free travel for under-18s” while it is dependent on Whitehall money.

But town halls say they will have to foot the bill for many children’s travel to school, which could cost £16 million pounds, according to a briefing document issued by London Councils, which represents all the capital’s boroughs.

While some schools are due to reopen on Monday, the document says TfL has proposed that fares are reimposed in time for the start of the school year in September. However, London Councils has warned it is “likely to be impossible” to establish a school travel system in time.

Middle doors on London bus
The pandemic has cut capacity on public transport

Child bus fares were scrapped for under-16s by then-mayor Ken Livingstone in 2005, with free travel given to 16 and 17-year-olds in full-time education the following year. Under-11s also get free Tube journeys, while TfL also pays for free National Rail travel for them.

Before then, councils paid for some children to travel to school by law – depending on their age and how far their school is – as they still do in other parts of England. A quarter of London’s children travel to school by bus – the same proportion as travel by car.

Town halls, which already have huge financial worries as a result of the pandemic, say they will be lumbered with the cost of bringing the scheme back as an “unintended consequence” of TfL’s bailout. One council says it would cost £500,000 to organise and implement in its own area, London Councils – which represents Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat boroughs – says.

“There were no prior consultations or discussions with London Councils or individual boroughs about any of the bailout deal conditions,” the paper says.

North Greenwich station
Under-11s also get free travel on the London Underground

“An unintended consequence of this condition is that it imposes a significant new burden on London local authorities in terms of school travel statutory obligations. It will also have a disproportionate impact on the most disadvantaged young people, as they may be unable to afford travel to access training, work and leisure opportunities.

“London Councils believes this to be unacceptable and is seeking the immediate removal of this condition from the TfL bailout agreement.”

It adds: “If necessary, TfL propose that these changes would need to come into effect at the start of the new academic year but it is not clear for how long the change would need to remain in place.

“This has not only a financial implication for London boroughs, but also an administrative burden with regard to identifying and verifying eligibility. The numbers affected and potential costs will vary in each borough but one authority has already estimated that this would cost an additional £500,000. This would equate to a total new burden of over £16 million for London’s boroughs.

“The administrative process would be considerable and likely to be impossible to establish and complete in time for secondary schools to return in September. An application process would need to be established, data would need to be gathered and analysed, decisions made and notified, challenge and appeals processes put in place and Oyster cards produced and issued. This would all be extremely challenging at the best of times but even more so in the current Covid-19 crisis situation.”

Southeastern ticket machine
Under-11s’ free National Rail travel is paid for by TfL

London Councils will meet officials from government departments, TfL and the mayor’s office on Monday to outline its concerns and “and hopefully agree a sensible way forward”.

If the condition is not removed, the paper says, London Councils will lobby the government to pay for town halls’ costs in setting up free travel schemes.

London Councils did not comment further when asked by 853, beyond confirming the total cost as £16 million. An earlier version of the document which had been passed to 853 and other outlets had put the cost at £10 million.

Khan has already written to Shapps pressing him to remove the condition, saying it is “abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever”.

The Liberal Democrat candidate in next year’s mayoral election, Siobhan Benita, said it “proves how poorly thought through” the TfL bailout was.

“The removal of free travel for children is a costly and bureaucratic burden for London’s boroughs at a time they should be focusing on keeping residents safe and cared for,” she said.

“I’m not sure whether the government didn’t realise the implications of their demand or, in playing politics with the mayor, simply didn’t care. Either way it is young Londoners that lose out and the right thing to do now is to reverse their decision.”

For Labour, assembly member Jennette Arnold – who was part of the original campaign to introduce free travel for children in the capital – said she was “shocked and amazed” that any government would consider cutting it.

“The government have really messed this up and have treated TfL in such a different way from how they’ve treated other transport authorities,” she added.

472 bus
Middle-door entry to buses is to be phased out over the coming weeks

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “We are working constructively with TfL on ways to reduce demand on the network during the Covid-19 crisis, including looking into the option of temporarily suspending free travel for under-18s.

“We have also published clear advice that urges people to avoid public transport if possible, and announced £2 billion in funding [in England] to encourage even more people to begin cycling and walking.”

Greenwich Council was contacted for comment yesterday but was unable to respond in time for publication. Council leader Danny Thorpe has already started a petition against the removal of free fares.

Today also sees 124 bus routes around London begin to charge fares once again, with passengers told to enter by the front doors. Buses are being progressively altered by vehicle type and garage, and the process should be complete by the middle of June, TfL said.

Additional reporting by Jessie Mathewson, City Hall Local Democracy Reporter

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