The surprise of the child benefit cut announcement raised a deeply misplaced ire from the chattering classes. Yes, it’s a blunt instrument and there is an anomaly in that families could have a joint income of around £88,000 without losing their eligibility for the benefit. But the bigger picture fact that many Guardianistas added their voices to the predictable Telegraphene outcry was quite depressing. The absurdity of their position was demonstrated ably in a clumsy, clunking article by Liam Byrne on Labour List, in which he laughably attempted to rebrand people earning in the high percentiles as ‘middle income’ and succeeded in nothing more than showing how out of touch with real life the political classes at their worst can be.
Speculation is now rife about the possibility of the Conservatives reneging on, or at least eroding the edges of, their pledges on some other non means-tested benefits, including the Winter Fuel Allowance and, interestingly, the free bus pass for pensioners.
Raising the eligibility age for the bus pass from 60 to 65, as is being mooted, is in itself a relatively uncontroversial measure; it brings the age closer in line with the age at which many people can realistically expect to retire nowadays, and it saves a bit of money which most people can see could be spent on other things.
But unlike child benefit and winter fuel allowance (which recipients are, rightly, under no obligation to spend on children or winter fuel respectively) the bus pass is a social as well as an economic intervention. By encouraging people to take public transport rather than drive, we reduce congestion – which contributes to costs to the average business of thousands of pounds a year in lost time and inefficiency. This is without mentioning pollution, climate change, increased social interaction and the health benefits arising from encouraging increased walking, with pensioners safe in the knowledge that they can jump on a bus if they get tired.
Since the demise of Ken Livingstone’s ‘Fares Fair’ campaign in the early 1980s, the free bus pass has been the UK’s only baby step towards the ideal of public transport free for all at the point of use. I’d love someone to explain to me how this principle is any different than that underpinning the NHS or state education (and I have someone in mind who will probably enjoy telling me exactly where I’m missing the point within a few hours after this is posted). In both health and education there are private alternatives, which ‘people have the freedom to choose’ (by which libertarians mean ‘rich people have the freedom to choose’). Yet universal, free at the point of use service provision is the way in which the majority of people access these services, and is prized and treasured by the British people and admired by others.
This is not to mention how far the British transport infrastructure lags behind that of other European countries. Rail is a much-vaunted example, but urban transport – buses, trams and light rail – is in much the same position. Rail projects such as Crossrail and High Speed 2 demonstrate some willingness to invest on the basis of long-term economic benefit rather than short-term profitability – but with local public transport in the hands of sometimes mercenary and often incompetent providers, the same can’t be said for everyday transport.
Labour’s Quality Contracts scheme enabled some progress in terms of local transport authorities operating a London-style, privatised but regulated market – notably in areas such as Leeds – but its definition of ‘the public interest’ left much to be desired. When would it not be in the public interest for fares, routes and service standards to be regulated?
This is also not to mention the staggering fall in the cost of motoring and rise in the price of public transport between 1980 and 2009, as discovered by the living legend that is Norman Baker MP.
As may be evident, there’s a lot more to it than the free bus pass. I would far rather see a wholesale reform of transport in this country – starting perhaps by taking transport seriously enough that it isn’t a dumping ground for disguntled ministers who are there for about 18 months before moving up in the world or getting sacked – and it remains to be seen if we’ll get it. In the meantime, whilst the child benefit cut was a quick and just way to stop giving a billion quid a year to people who don’t need it, my fear is that changes to concessionary transport are treated in the same way, rather than recognised as what they are: the foothills of a broad and crucially important strategic issue.