End of the road for pensioners’ Freedom Pass?
As TfL temporarily suspends free rush-hour travel for the elderly, charity warns measure must not become permanent
22 May, 2020 — By Richard Osley
Former Tribune columnist Illtyd Harrington, who was a fierce defender of the Freedom Pass
TRANSPORT chiefs have been warned the suspension of free travel for elderly passengers in rush hour must not become a permanent measure.
Thousands of Freedom Pass passengers were told this week that the dispensation was being scrapped as the government announced a bailout deal for Transport for London (TfL).
The move followed a 90 per cent drop in revenue on buses and trains during the coronavirus crisis and direct advice not to use the network unless journeys are essential.
Measures attached to the £1.6billion deal, however, have included an end to fare freezes and increased congestion charges.
And in a bid to also reduce overcrowding, there is also a suspension to free travel for children and, in peak times, for pensioners.
Abigail Wood, who was recently appointed the new chief executive of the Age UK London charity, said: “These temporary measures must not be the first step on the road to watering down travel concessions for older people living in London.”
She added: “These changes penalise older Londoners who do not want to use public transport at peak times but simply don’t have a choice.
This includes key workers over the age of 60 who are delivering vital services during the pandemic.
“It is unhelpful to try to create behaviour change by putting financial pressure on particular group of Londoners.”
Abigail Wood of Age UK London
The charity said older residents would also still need the network to get to medical appointments or to use priority shopping hours for the elderly, which were often at the start of the day.
In Islington, hundreds of residents are entitled to a Freedom Pass, a measure first introduced by the late Illtyd Harrington during his time as the deputy leader of the Greater London Council in the 1970s.
Later the Tribune’s books editor and a columnist, Mr Harrington became a fierce defender of the scheme amid attempts several attempts to cut back entitlements over the years.
The new package comes after fraught negotiations between the government and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who admitted it was “not the deal I wanted”.
It involves a grant of £1.1bn and a loan of £500m, and covers costs until October.
Mr Khan said: “It was the only deal the government put on the table and I had no choice but to accept it to keep the tubes and buses running.”
He added that it had been the government who had “insisted” that peak- time Freedom Pass travel was suspended.
“The government has also insisted that, unlike the deals done elsewhere in the country, TfL takes on £505m of additional debt,” he said.
“This will undo the hard work we’ve put in to fix TfL’s finances over the last four years, when TfL’s operating deficit has reduced by 71 per cent. This deal is a sticking plaster.”
But in comments made in Parliament, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it was the government that was trying to get TfL’s books in order and that he was ordering a review into its finances.
“The settlement for TfL was needed for two reasons. Most important is the significant fall in revenue caused by Covid-19,” he said. “However, an important secondary factor was the pre-existing poor condition of TfL’s financial position as a result of decisions made over the last four years.”
This month’s London mayoral elections have been postponed for a year.