"Get on a bus and go find work": It's not as easy as all that

Transport is a serious hinderance to employment for young people, according to a new report from the Work Foundation.

Shortly after the last election, Iain Duncan Smith made headlines by telling Newsnight that unemployed people in Merthyr Tydfil, an economically depressed town in Wales:

Had become static and didn't know that if they got on a bus for an hour's journey, they'd be in Cardiff and could look for the jobs there.

IDS was derided for having an "on-your-bike" moment – recalling Norman Tebbit's infamous request that unemployed people get on their bikes and look for work elsewhere.

In fact, the very thing he cited as a reason why unemployed people should find it easy to get work is a major barrier to employment, especially for young people, according to a new report from the *Work Foundation*.

The report claims that transport costs have made it difficult for one in five young people to take part in education or training, particularly those living in rural areas. That latter group then face further obstacles if they do manage to complete training, since finding a job which pays enough to make the commute worthwhile is tricky itself.

Young people are twice as likely as those over 24 to walk to work, and 50 per cent more likely to take a bus; even of the 55 per cent who travel by car, a fifth of them travel as a passenger.

Which means that, even discounting the fact that younger people have less money, the continued above-inflation rise in bus fares disproportionately hits the exact sector of society which is suffering 20 per cent unemployment:

Local bus fares index, adjusted to inflation using RPI. 100=2005

Even apart from money, however, transport poses problems for employment. The fact is that without a car – which is prohibitively expensive to buy and run – large numbers of jobs are simply inaccessible:

In many areas across the UK [London is an obvious exception], bus frequencies and reliability have decreased over the past decade. The vast majority [over 80 per cent] of bus services in England outside London are deregulated, and loss-making services are often cut.

Concessionary fares are the most obvious solution to the problem, and are woefully underused. Only four of the 89 local travel authorities outside London offer money off for unemployed people, and only 25 offer it for young people. Even if they do, that does not solve the fact that the gutted state of many rural and suburban networks leaves them woefully unsuitable for many types of work - good luck using them if you don't have a predictable nine-to-five job.

The report suggests, in addition, schemes like "wheels to work", which loan out mopeds or bicycles to people who struggle to access employment.

Katy Jones, the lead report author, writes that:

The government should guarantee concessionary fares for young, long-term unemployed people. To keep support in line with participation in education and training, it should also extend transport assistance up until the age of 18, in line with planned increases in the participation age.

Hopefully Iain Duncan Smith has learned a bit more since 2010 about the problems with "just getting on a bus"; but if he hasn't, he would do well to listen to the Work Foundation now.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.