And yet for millions of people who have to use buses every day – and who have no choice about which mode to use – the feeling is very different. If you have to use public transport morning and night, then you know that it can take a huge slice of your income – and that is why we politicians cast around so desperately for ways to reduce the burden.
Every autumn we face the same dilemma. If we follow the pleas of our officials, and raise fares – to cope with inflation and the cost of investing in our systems – we are tightening the squeeze on people who have already seen their disposable income shrink over the past five years.
If we are irresponsible, on the other hand, and we fail to replenish the “fare box”, then we risk disaster. We are coping with the oldest underground train network in the world, and with a city that is growing faster than any other European capital. If people are to have any hope of living near their place of work, we have to supply them with adequate trains, buses and Tubes. We cut costs at every opportunity – selling buildings, introducing automation, axing bureaucracy – but the trouble with a universal fares freeze is that it takes a huge chunk out of the budget. It means indefinitely postponing or cancelling schemes that are essential for growth, such as replacing the clapped-out signalling on the District line, or ordering new trains for the Piccadilly.
And then there is a second problem with an across-the-board fares cut – namely, that it is a hopelessly blunt instrument. Think of me luxuriating there on the Oxford Street bus, on my once-in-a-blue-moon shopping trip. Do I need a fare cut? Think of the millions of tourists who use our transport networks every day, and who probably don’t even notice how much they are paying. Would they be any more inclined to come to this country if the cost of their urban transport was a little lower? Do they need or deserve an abatement in their fares? I don’t really think so.
Look around you on the bus, and you will see that almost 40 per cent of the complement are travelling free or at cut price: the pensioners with their Freedom Passes, the kids, the veterans, the disabled, those in search of work. No politician is easily going to remove these concessions (try telling the affluent bourgeoisie that their Freedom Pass is at risk, and see what mayhem ensues).
The result is that the entire burden of fare-paying is carried by the 60 per cent – and that includes the people who make this country work, the people on low or moderate incomes who travel large distances every day to their places of employment and who have absolutely no choice in the matter. It is time we did something specifically to help them, and that something is to give tax relief on travel.
We need a scheme that is analogous to the government help currently given to child-care vouchers or cycle-to-work schemes. Employees should be allowed to pay for their season tickets from their pre-tax income.
To see what I mean, take a customer who buys an annual bus pass for £784. At present, he or she buys that season ticket after paying tax. Under the tax relief scheme, the employer would buy the season ticket and deduct the cost from his or her pay packet – and only then would the employee be assessed for tax. With their taxable pay reduced, the employee would save £251 in tax and National Insurance, and the employer would save £108. The administration costs would be kept minimal by doing it all online, and of course the relief would only apply at the basic rate.
Yes, there would be a cost to the Treasury – but then every year the government spends huge sums trying to hold fares down. This scheme strikes me as one George should consider further. You would allow continued investment in transport, and you would target your help at exactly the people who need it – not the millionaires and the tourists and the casual shoppers, but the hardworking people who are really turning the wheels of recovery.