Why free bus travel for under-25s is a political gimmick

In case you haven’t noticed, there is an election on. There are many irksome aspects of this time of year, but none as much as badly-designed, rushed-through policies aimed to wooing a certain demographic to your cause. And as time goes on and you make more and more of them, the more ridiculous – and therefore transparent – they become. The latest proposal from the Labour party is a clear sign that they are running out of ideas.

Free bus fares for all under-25s is a concept straight from an axed episode of The Thick of It – the blindingly obvious purpose coupled with back-of-a-fag-packet ‘evidence’ is simply beyond comedy. To top it all off, it appears nobody has googled this in the context of the UK because if they have, they would have known that the Welsh Tories proposed this exact policy back in October for 19-24 year olds. But as it is a sign of the times, it deserves proper scrutiny.

There is the obvious point of a staggering cost, estimated to be £1.4 billion every year, but this likely to be an underestimation. Given that one of the reasons why Labour is doing this is to increase usage of bus services by young people, this number will increase as usage increases. At a time when public finances are still in a dire state, this amount of money being spent on subsidising bus tickets for under-25s (which, on average, cost £1.94 per journey) is arguably not the best way to spend £1.4 billion.

Then there is the issue of who this money will go to. The reality is that everywhere but outside of London it is much easier to use a car. Indeed, out of the 4.44 billion bus journeys, London accounted for half of it. So why should a 26 year old on minimum wage in Grimsby subsidise a 24 year old City banker? Why should the rest of the country subsidise London?

Indeed, why should rural areas subsidise cities? Labour proposes to fund this out of Vehicle Exercise Duty (VED) essentially leading to a situation where car users – more likely to live away from cities – are subsidising city-dwelling public transport users. Yet motorists are already shelling out a fortune on taxes. Fuel duty, VED, insurance premium tax and even VAT on fuel (essentially amounting to a tax on tax) all hit car users disproportionately, while at the same time the level of public spending on roads pales into insignificance compared to how much taxpayers’ money is spent subsidising rail tickets and buses. Because, naturally, buses are already subsidised, costing each household in England £97.

But by far the most bizarre aspect of this policy is that the new subsidy will only be available to those local authorities who introduce bus franchising or move to complete public ownership of their services, essentially undercutting private operators already in existence. This will create untold costs to the taxpayer associated with setting up or buying bus companies (I’m guessing franchising, the model we use for trains, will not prove that popular once someone thought about it a bit more) and cause inevitable management failures as local government bureaucrats attempt to run bus companies.

This is badly-designed, vastly under-costed policy with a sole purpose of shoring up metropolitan youth vote at the upcoming local elections. So much so that it’s starting to look a little obvious.