There are considerable benefits associated with accessing the various SmartPass schemes that make up the Concessionary Fares Scheme as a whole.
In a 2019 survey conducted by DfI,10 recipients of the Over-60s and Over 65s SmartPass said that the Pass enabled them to be more active (86%), afford more when public transport is cheaper/free (86%), make more social visits (85%), and be less reliant on friends and family for transport (84%). This research also showed that respondents used their SmartPass to travel for shopping trips (67%), social visits (67%), and to attend hospital appointments or visits (58%).
This data alone justifies the need for the Pass; it enables a socially connected life and greater independence for those people who may be reaching the end of their working life, mitigating against loneliness, isolation, and poor health. As we face into a continuing and deepening Cost-of-Living crisis, this data is even more relevant; for many people the cost of public transport was a factor and the means to travel without worrying about cost was important; we know that many will not be able to make some journeys that they may previously have made.
At the beginning of the consultation, the Department outlined the numerous social, economic, environmental and public health benefits to providing free public transport to those over 60 and those with qualifying disabilities. This has a particular positive impact on gender equality in Northern Ireland. The Department noted that, “…people are more likely to take up the concessionary travel pass if they are in lower income households, have no access to cars, live in urban areas or generally live near better transport”. While this is based on English data, we know that it is a similar situation in Northern Ireland.
The wider community benefit such as, “enabling older and disabled people to volunteer, stay involved in church or charity work, help with childcare, or visit friends and family,” is immense and again, facilitates older people and people with disabilities to participate in public life. ‘Help with childcare’ is a particular gendered benefit. Northern Ireland has the most expensive childcare in the UK outside of London, and many people rely on older relatives to provide full-time or part-time childcare. This essential support allows many women to work and/or upskill through apprenticeships and/or higher education. Increasing the Scheme’s age restrictions could worsen the accessibility and availability of informal childcare. Without this option, many women would not be able to afford current childcare options and could be forced into economic inactivity as a result.
Negative Impact of Removing the Smart Pass
The WPG believes that if the SmartPass was removed from individuals who are currently eligible, it would be a considerable loss and would most negatively impact groups that already face significant disadvantage in society. Moreover, this may foster discontent from those who expected, and financially planned, to be in receipt of the pass from the age of 60. This discontent is already evident in a series of public protests about this proposal and is likely to be echoed in the responses to this consultation.
There would be undeniable negative impacts on older people, therefore, if this Scheme was scaled back, including financial and health impacts. In addition, however, we can anticipate more nuanced impacts for groups within that demographic. Women, in particular, use their SmartPasses differently to men, and use them more (note that in DfI’s 2019 survey, a disproportionately large number of respondents were women, which perhaps reflects the value that women feel the SmartPass brings to their lives.
There are also considerable environmental and sustainability concerns around the potential removal of the SmartPasses for over 60s or over 65s. In DfI’s 2019 survey, data indicated that 88% of respondents said that the SmartPass increased their use of public transport12. As Northern Ireland is now obliged to enact the Climate Change Act 2022 and is moving towards a Strategy for a Circular Economy, it is vital that we do all that we can to encourage and enable people to use public transport where feasible. The Department for Infrastructure even states within its own Transport Planning Strategy 2020- 203513 that “the Department’s vision for the transport system in Northern Ireland, places climate change and connecting people at its heart.” It is at odds with the Department’s own climate policy to pursue a policy on Concessionary Fares that would cause a reduction in public transport usage and increase in usage of private vehicles at a time when it is more important than ever to reverse this trend.
Northern Ireland must play its part in achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, and accessible public transport is key to SDG 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Transport is also a key element to the Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022; maintaining free/reduced fares for people 60+, widening free/reduced fares for people with disabilities, and extending free/reduced fares to asylum-seekers and victims of human trafficking are key to encouraging usage of public transport and moving our society towards a greener future.
It is also notable that this consultation does not reflect the potential impacts that any change to Concessionary Fares would have on community transport and those who use community transport. As stated by the Community Transport Association, “Community transport is about providing flexible and accessible community-led solutions in response to unmet local transport needs. It represents the only means of transportation for many vulnerable and isolated people, often older people or people with disabilities.”
Community Transport is closely linked to the SmartPass schemes, as those who hold valid SmartPasses can also access community transport services such as the Assisted Rural Travel Scheme (ARTS) and the Diala-lift service (DAL). The ARTS scheme is directly aimed at improving uptake and usage of SmartPasses in rural areas where there is limited availability of public transport infrastructure. Any changes to Concessionary Fares will inevitably have a knock-on effect on other service providers such as the Community Transport Association and these potential impacts should be examined in depth and if necessary, mitigated against.
Finally, we are concerned that some of the measures outlined below will have the effect of harming marginalised people to save money, and that the most marginalised will be the most impacted. This is a pattern across Departmental Budget EQIA documents as well as multiple EQIAs on individual Schemes, and we are acutely aware that the current financial situation is not a choice of the Department of Infrastructures.
This is an excerpt from the WPG NI Response to Department for Infrastructure Consultation on Concessionary Fares.