Travel Poverty and the “Big Society”

I’ll never forget a conversation I once had with my Great Auntie Elsie. She was bemoaning the fact that people at church wanted to stay around afterwards to chat over coffee.

“Maybe they want to catch up on the week’s events “ I said naively “and see how people are”.

“But in my day” she said “you knew what kind of week people had had because you were with them all week.” Elsie’s late husband had been a coal miner in the Whitehaven coalfield before he’d been prematurely invalided with a bad heart. She touched on a world where your work colleagues were also your next door neighbours. And they were also the people sitting next to you in church. Such closeness bred a powerful sense of community and solidarity – something our modern world can’t even begin to emulate.

Today I live in southeast Hertfordshire(1). I share an office with people from Surrey, Sussex, northwest London and Hackney. I don’t know most of the people who live in my block of flats, I see the same faces on the train platform and in the train carriage but I have no idea who they are. I suspect they work in offices across London.

Such a world didn’t come about by accident. It came about initially because London’s middle classes sought a rural idyll to return to after their working day in the City. Then the working classes moved out in the wake of the Blitz. In the later decades of the twentieth century, it became a necessity because living in central London became impossibly expensive. But the rapidly increasing cost of travel is creating a “catch 22” for many people – especially minimum wage workers working in the City and West End. Some are able to survive because they live with family; others live in cramped conditions sharing rooms with other lodgers.

It’s not just minimum wage workers who get caught in this “catch 22”. My 30-something colleague pays £650 per month for a room in Hackney – supposedly one of the country’s poorest boroughs. I pay less than that for a flat in Hertfordshire but I need to factor in the cost of the season ticket – £2,200 per year(1). In fairness, mine is cheaper than comparable routes. It is £2,600 from Harlow, £3,000 from Stevenage, £3,000 from Hemel Hempstead and £3,000 from Crawley. Move further out and I could find cheaper property but I could pay £5,000 from Wellingborough or £6,600 from Rugby. That is more than half the annual salary of someone working fulltime on the minimum wage. As I have sat (or stood) on overcrowded commuter trains I can’t help but think that someone somewhere is making a killing out of unsuspecting commuters – a modern day “rack rent”.

As Tory Housing benefit changes start to bite and foreign oligarchs continue to push central London prices to stratospheric levels, increasing numbers of London’s poor and middle classes will be moving out in search of more affordable housing. They will be met with travel prices increasing at well above inflation, whether that is annual season tickets or the price of petrol and car insurance.

Some people will respond to this by taking drastic action. A young father in my village cycles to his office at London Bridge. It’s a 50 mile round trip he makes 5 days a week, but for most people living outside London’s inner suburbs, cycling is not a realistic option.

What we could see is the creation of a whole new class of workless and working poor: the “travel poor”. Those priced out of the job market because they cannot afford the cost of travelling to work; those who calculate that they are better off on benefits than they are in work once the cost of travel is factored in.

This is a serious social problem – a “ticking time bomb”. Without concerted government intervention to reverse these trends, we are likely to see an inexorable decline in the quality of life of the poor and middle classes across the south of England. This quality of life is only made poorer by fractured communities made up of strangers living next to each other. Without the sense of solidarity that enabled communities in previous generations to endure all manner of suffering and hardship, and without the support system that biological extended families can provide, many individuals and families will suffer in silence, at a loss to know to whom they can turn. In this context, notions of the “Big Society” are, at best black comedy, and at worst, black propaganda.

(1) I was living in Stanstead Abbotts when I wrote this post.