Here’s why London’s new mayor should scrap the £100m free travel bung for older workers

Bloody freeloaders. Image: Getty.

There’s been a growing discussion nationally about how fairly spending cuts have been shared between age groups. Policies such as the state pension triple lock, or the protection of winter fuel allowance and other perks for pensioners, are often attacked as unfair at a time when other spending is being significantly reduced.

But in London there is a far more obviously unjust policy that benefits one well off age group at everyone else’s expense. The possibility of scrapping it should be near the top of the new mayor’s in-tray.

A bung worth thousands

I’m referring to the “60+ pass” – or “60+ London Oyster photocard scheme”, to give it its full name – which allows a lucky minority to travel for free. The name, however, is a bit misleading. For those above the female state pension age (roughly 63 at present, rising to 65 by 2018 and 66 by 2020), there is the separate old age Freedom Pass. This – like the free bus pass elsewhere in the UK, and rightly or wrongly – lets pensioners travel for free. In other words, this is really a “60-63” pass, rising to a “60-66” pass by 2020.

The 60+ pass was introduced in 2012-13 after the female State Pension Age, and therefore the Freedom Pass eligibility age, started rising. And while the Freedom Pass is part of a national policy (funded in London by borough councils), the 60+ pass was created by Boris Johnson and is funded from TfL’s budget. (Scotland and Wales have similar schemes for those between 60 and the female State Pension Age.)

Applicants do need to pay a £20 fee to cover administrative costs – but that is a tiny price to pay to be able to “travel free on bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and most National Rail services in London”. An annual travelcard for just zones 1-2 would cost most people £1,296; free travel throughout London would cost £4,012 (more, if you couldn’t afford a whole year upfront). And couples may benefit twice over, of course.

The cost to TfL is soaring

A Freedom of Information request I put in to TfL reveals just how much this policy costs them. This year the cost is expected to be £56m. Compared to national budgets that’s not a huge sum, but it is over 1 per cent of TfL’s fare income and compares to the London Fire Brigade’s budget of £425m a year.

And the cost is growing rapidly. In its first full year, 2013-14, it cost £22m; two years later that had doubled to £44m. By 2019-20 – ahead of the next London election – it will have risen to around £100m, as the female State Pension Age keeps going up.

It goes to commuters not retirees

High costs might be justified if they achieve a worthy goal such as redistributing to a vulnerable group. But a look at relevant data suggests that this is really not the case.

First up, I’ve looked at the employment rate of this group: are they mostly retirees we need to help out of the house to socialise and access public services? No: they’re commuters.

Some 85 per cent of men eligible for the 60+ pass are in work, as are 70 per cent of eligible women. Sure, that’s lower than the proportions of younger people in work, but the big drop off in employment rates in London clearly comes later than people’s early 60s.

It may actually increase inequality

To judge whether the recipients are really rich or poor, we need to look beyond employment to their earnings, housing and other wealth; their partner’s income; and what family they have to support.

The measure below is the best measure of living standards, and looks at the typical incomes after housing costs of four age groups. It shows that the 60+ pass age group is in fact typically richer than other age groups.

What’s more, although not shown here, even poorer households (the bottom 40 per cent) in that age range are richer than their younger equivalents. So, if the intention of the policy is to help people on low or middle incomes, it is hopelessly ill-targeted.

 

More analysis is needed, and it’s difficult with the survey data available to look at such a small (and shifting) age group in only one region of the country. But this quick analysis should dispel any myth that those eligible for the 60+ pass are a particularly needy group.

More likely than not, this is a scheme that increases inequality by having a poorer majority pay more to subsidise households richer than them.


Time to scrap the 60+ pass, one way or another

The 60+ pass is a genuinely awful policy. Sadiq Khan should scrap it and use the growing sum of money to help fund his fare freeze for everyone – a promise estimated by him to cost £450mn over four years (though others have suggested higher figures).

Or it could be used to help the many families who really are in poverty in the capital. The London Fairness Commission suggested this spending on rich, elderly Londoners be redirected to improving the skills of poor, young Londoners.

Not encouragingly, Sadiq’s manifesto committed him to “guarantee” the 60+ pass. But one option might be to start increasing the eligibility age beyond 60 – phasing out the pass while protecting those who are already receive it.

But, if not, we need more scrutiny and popular recognition of the inequity of this policy – particularly as working at 60 in London becomes ever more normal – to slowly turn the debate before the next election in four years’ time.

Adam Corlett is an economic analyst at a think tank.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.