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Who’s to blame for loss of free travel for under-18s?

Labour and Tories blame each other over loss

08 September, 2020 — By Richard Osley

LABOUR and the Conservatives have clashed in a blame game over the removal of free travel for under-18s in London, amid warnings that children are being used as a political football.

The two parties were starkly divided last night’s (Monday’s) full council meeting as the government and London Mayor Sadiq Khan were alternately accused of leaving teenagers facing bus and tube fares as they returned to school.

The Liberal Democrats had stoked the debate by bringing a motion calling for the restoration of free travel and more lobbying.

Their new group leader Councillor Luisa Porritt said: “Life is hard for young people today, they are facing the triple whammy of the hardest of Brexits, a pandemic and the economic fallout from it and the climate crisis. Research shows free bus travel has been cost effective and promotes independence and social inclusion for young people.”

Lib Dem councillor Luisa Porritt [all councillor photos taken before the Covid pandemic]

She warned that children from disadvantaged backgrounds and Black and Minority Ethnic communities would be disproportionately affected by the changes.

As the coronavirus lockdown slashed the use of public transport, Transport for London was handed what has been described as a “bail out” by the government to keep it functioning. The £1.6 billion deal in June has since been used by Conservatives to attack Mr Khan with claims the holes in the finances were made worse by his stewardship of the city.

The terms of the pensioners’ freedom pass were reduced and the free travel for the young was removed. These were described as temporary measures but the debate has raged over when they will be restored.

The Department of Transport has also hired KPMG to analyse how TfL had budgeted. The New Journal reported last month how plans to redevelop Camden Town and Holborn tube station had been suspended amid the financial squeeze.

Labour refused to support the wording of the Lib Dem motion and removed parts critical of Mr Khan to see an amended version voted through the virtual chamber; councillors are meeting using videocall technology as the Covid crisis continues.

With a dominating majority at the Town Hall, the oppostion parties stand little chance of getting a motion through unedited.

Labour councillor Adam Harrison said: “The dependance on fares TfL ended up with was during Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor, and it’s worth noting the huge rise of borrowing by TfL was under Boris Johnson and the way Sadiq Khan closed the operating deficit in the short time he’s had. So it has been well-managed, contrary to some of the stuff that’s been put around.”

Councillor Douglas Beattie, another member of the ruling Labour group, said: “I would point out to the entire council that London is the only world city now not to have an operating grant – i.e. a grant from central government. That was removed when Boris Johnson was Mayor and George Osborne was chancellor.”

Labour councillor Douglas Beattie

“That’s £700 million a year in finances for running London’s transport network that no longer exists, and it leaves London completely reliant on fares. And when there’s no one on the trains there are no fares. So we’re in a terrible situation, but we have the Tory government to blame for that.”

Oliver Cooper, the leader of the Conservatives, insisted that axing the free travel benefit was not a stipulation of the funding deal and Mr Khan had made the decision to take this approach.

“Travel for under 18s was not mandated as a reduction in the demands from the government,” he said.

“It’s one of the options that Sadiq Khan has to look at, but he is free and completely capable of choosing not to make that reduction. The Secetary of State for Transport made that clear to the Commons’ Transport Committee in June.”

He said one rule of the deal had been to “maximise service levels on all networks to full normal service during the daytime”, adding: “This has not happened in Camden. Chalk Farm [underground station] is inexplicably still not open despite the huge impact on residents. The same is true of Goodge Street, Hampstead, Swiss Cottage, Tufnell Park, at different times of the day.”

“There’s a dereliction of duty, it is astonishing negligence and instead of talking about who was to blame for different issues about the bailout terms, we should make sure that Sadiq Khan sticks to those terms including reopening our stations here in Camden.”

Conservative councillor Maria Higson

Tory councillor Maria Higson added: “This is more incredible when you go back to Sadiq Khan’s 2016 manifesto when he stated: ‘I’ll personally chair Transport for London, working with businesses and boroughs to plan the transport capacity we need for London’s future, while modernising TfL, turning it into a more efficient and more profitable public section organisation’. Personally chairing TfL but taking no responsibility, doesn’t sound like leadership to me.”

Cllr Porritt, who has previously said she was seriously thinking about standing in the contest to find a Liberal Democrat London mayoral candidate, said “we’re not buying it” to the Conservatives, adding: “You know full well that the removal of free travel for under 18s is a condition imposed by the government, so it’s pretty dishonest to pretend otherwise. But we’ve got used to obfuscation and lies from the Vote Leave government, so maybe Camden Tories aren’t that different.”

But she attacked Mr Khan too.

“The Labour Mayor shares some responsibility for this decision,” she said. “The mayor should never have made an undeliverable promise to not raise cheap fares back in 2016.”

Green Party councillor Sian Berry, who is already confirmed as her  party’s London mayoral candidate, said: “Let’s not forget that the free travel we provide in London for young people is about much more than getting to school, it can suport their access to work, seeing friends and family, and to get into use our museums and galleries to access history and culture – to catch up on their education that’s been hard hit.”

Young people suffering homelessness used the free travel to reach support at New Horizons in Euston, Cllr Berry added.

She added: “There’s confusion and spin about who eventually agreed to it, but I think we have to agree: We shouldn’t be using young people’s travel as quite as much as a political football when their futures are on the line. Whoever has the power should be sorting this out because young people need this, they just don’t need so many political rows from us.”

She voted with the Lib Dem motion but Labour’s amended text was carried after voting.

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