Government pressure to scrap free travel for London children during the coronavirus crisis will cost councils up to £10 million as they foot the bill for getting disadvantaged pupils to school, a leaked report has warned.
London politicians have accused ministers of “penalising young people” and “playing politics” with Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Bus and tram journeys in London are currently free for all youngsters, with free Tube travel for under 11s and discounted trips for older children.
But those travel perks are set to be cut during the Covid-19 outbreak, under the terms of a £1.6 billion Government bailout of Transport for London (TfL), agreed two weeks ago.
The network has lost 95% of fare revenue during lockdown, and the emergency cash from ministers will keep trains and buses running until September.
The full agreement, published, confirms that the transport authority must bring forward proposals to pause free travel for under 18s.
But if TfL stops footing the bill , London boroughs will be legally obliged to pay for school bus travel for some children.
Local authorities have to bus pupils to class if they meet certain criteria – including living far from their school, low family income, or disability.
Almost a third of London youngsters who travel to school by bus would be eligible for free journeys, the Mayor’s Office estimates.
Now a briefing from local government association London Councils – which represents all 33 local authorities in the city – warns cutting free journeys will have a “dramatic impact” on young people.
The document – sent to political leaders, and seen by the Local Democracy Service – warns of a “significant new burden on London local authorities”.
One borough has estimated it will cost £300,000 to get all its eligible pupils to school – meaning the total bill for the city could be £10 million, the report says.
And it will be “almost impossible” to put an application system in place by the start of the new school year in September, it warns.
There would be significant admin involved in set up – establishing an application process, gathering data, making decisions and dealing with appeals.
This would be “extremely challenging at the best of times but even more so in the current Covid-19 crisis situation”, the briefing says.
Apart from the school run, having no access to free travel will have a profound impact on young people in the capital, it adds.
“The children and parents who can afford it will have to pick up the bill – but those from more disadvantaged backgrounds will be less likely to travel and will end up missing out,” the document claims.
Mr Khan has already called on Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to rethink the proposal to scrap free travel for children.
Writing to Mr Shapps, the Mayor said it is “abundantly clear” the plans will “hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever.”
Liberal Democrat Mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita has also written to the Transport Secretary with concerns about the proposals.
Responding to the London Councils briefing, Ms 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,” she added.
“Either way it is young Londoners that lose out and the right thing to do now is to reverse their decision.”
Labour London Assembly member Jennette Arnold – who was part of the original campaign to introduce free travel for children in the capital – said she is “shocked and amazed” that any Government would consider cutting it.
The Hackney, Islington and Waltham Forest member is also chair of the London Assembly’s cross-party Education Panel.
Ms Arnold said she was “not surprised” by the London Councils cost estimate, and said the impact on boroughs would “definitely be onerous”.
Her most vulnerable constituents will lose out if they have to pay for their children to travel, she said.
“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.
“They’re penalising the young people of London – and it’s not acceptable.”
The Government will meet with TfL, London Councils and the Mayor’s team on Monday (1 June) to discuss possible changes to the bailout conditions.
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 to encourage even more people to begin cycling and walking.”
London Councils was approached for comment.