Farm subsidies can be used to subsidise rural transport
It is much harder being young these days than it has been in living memory.
For all the benefits of modern-day gadgets and bling, the reality of the limited job and housing opportunities and the pressure of a more materialistic world leaves our young people at a disadvantage to their predecessors. And that is quite apart from the added costs of going on to further and higher education.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister and the Conservatives are already indicating that they intend to remove benefits from under-25s and confront them with an even starker choice of a job or training and no housing benefit.
In our rural areas, young people already have a double disadvantage of finding themselves more remote from their friends, from college and their workplace than their metropolitan counterparts.
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The costs of going out, getting to work or to college, is usually more than double that of young people in urban areas. Their choices and opportunities – already more restricted than in towns and cities – are narrowed yet further by the high price of tickets.
While young people growing up in rural areas feel the effects of ticket prices on their educational, social and employment options, it is urban areas that have the most generous schemes in place to make sure young people do not have their opportunities restricted by high transport costs. The Zip Card, for example, which is available to 16 to 18-year-old Londoners in education, opens up the transport system with child-rate travel cards, free bus travel, and half-price tube and train tickets. People over 18 studying in London can also say goodbye to 30% of the cost of a travel card, giving them "all you can eat" travel in the city.
That's why I'm urging the Government to introduce a new young persons' travel card – equivalent to the pensioner's bus pass.
The proposal is based on the introduction of statutory concessionary travel for all 16 to 19-year-olds who live in designated rural areas – although I recognise that not all young people will choose to take up the offer. Participating bus and rail services would be assisted with the introduction of the Oyster card-style swipe technology. I believe we should be using this as a "vehicle" for the introduction of an Oyster-style swipe card as passengers get on to buses, speeding up the transaction and improving the effective management of concessionary arrangements for young people and other bus users.
Local authorities would be responsible for administering a scheme which would be Government funded. Such a scheme could either offer a percentage discount beyond that already offered to young people or a completely free service up to a predetermined quarterly limit (the young person would be responsible for topping up their card to pay for any additional travel beyond that considered "reasonable" under the scheme).
Using the Government's already existing definition of rural areas, the total cost of the scheme could be as little as £30 million or up to £90 million, depending on which definition of "rural" you use and how generous the scheme is.
Needless to say, people are bound to ask how such a scheme would be paid for. The answer is through the Common Agricultural Policy.
All European countries agree that spending on direct support to farmers must come down and that some of those payments should be used to support regeneration in the wider rural economy. Among the six priorities for rural regeneration is one which is to "promote social inclusion, poverty reduction and economic development in rural areas". I can think of little better than the support of a new Rural Young Persons' Public Transport Support Scheme.
While the Government has capped benefits to the poor, I have been asking them to apply the same principle through the Common Agricultural Policy in its payments to wealthy farmers.
Of course, any Government should be able to introduce a reasonable cap on very high claims for taxpayer-funded benefits. If "we are all in it together" the Government should not resist, as they are, the introduction of a cap on taxpayer-funded benefits to the largest and wealthiest landowners in the country through the farm support system.
Many farmers are receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds and, in some individual cases, cheques each year of more than £1 million – money they do not need. If a portion of that were directed to the Rural Young Persons' Transport Support Scheme this would help towards the funding of a much-needed free bus pass for rural young folk.
Not only would it help young people seeking jobs, getting to college, having a social life, but it would get rid of the death-trap of having to use a moped as well as provide income to underpin much-needed bus services.