If the government wants ‘clean air’, it can start investing in local transport somewhere other than London

Pressured by our still-affiliated EU member states into finally doing something about climate change, the UK government is frantically trying to reduce pollution levels in Britain’s metropolitan hotspots. But without decent municipal transport services to offset high congestion charges everywhere but London, the government’s ‘clean air’ drive will only increase mobility poverty in regional areas.

When it comes to the UK capital, the government’s congestion-charge onslaught is fair enough. Last week, London’s Ultra-Low Emissions Zone began levying a daily £12.50 fee upon cars that don’t meet the emissions standards of the zone. Some motorists have derided the charge a ‘poll tax’, arguing that it will affect low-income families who can’t afford electric cars. Most agree, however, that London’s toxic atmosphere requires immediate thinning. Besides, with an extensive (and cheap) network of tube links, bus services and local trains, will the charge really make much difference to the average commuter? Probably not.

But congestion charges in regional areas are a different story – and that’s because regional councils don’t have their own Transport for London equivalent. As a highly organised, integrated public body – capable of implementing policy and receiving government bail-outs if targets are not met – TfL ensures that public transport fares within Greater London remain comically reasonable. In the surrounding regions, meanwhile, where government has no legal duty to guarantee efficiency or affordable fares, local bus prices have faced inflation rates of over 35% since 1995.

The 1985 Transport Act marks the beginning of this tragic affair. Under Thatcher, local bus services outside London were deregulated and privatised: the proviso being that this would ensure increased competition, leading to better services and lower prices. In reality, the reverse is true, meaning buses are doing nothing to relieve congestion or reduce fuel emissions. In fact, they only make driving cars the more economic option.

That’s why it’s so likely the government-decreed Low-Emissions-Zone proposed in Tyneside, for example, will be mothballed after the current online consultation reveals little sympathy for its implementation. Several reasons come to mind. Firstly, the prospect of a £12.50 nation-wide congestion charge just seems ignorant: it fails to account for the fact that disposable household income, as of 2016, was £11,388 higher in Greater London than the North East – a gap which can only have widened since the EU referendum. Secondly, the charge seems to forget the existence of a blatant disparity in the cost of public transport between the North-East and the nation’s capital. For the latter, a congestion charge may be an inconvenience; for the former, it could threaten economic survival.

Maddeningly, in areas outside of London, municipal private bus companies can charge whatever they like (and do) – because they face little to no competition and are unaccountable to government. In 2014, The Progressive Policy Think Tank argued that deregulation was failing the poorest in society, with working people living in deprived regional areas relying more on taxis than any other income group because of prohibitively high bus fares. A congestion charge will hit them hard. This speaks to a wider trend: passenger journeys on buses outside of London are down 4.2% from the figures obtained in March 2005; while London’s are up 23.5%. Depressingly, there are more passenger journeys in London than in the rest of England combined.

With expensive fares and unreliable services prevailing everywhere outside of London, the government’s ‘clean air’ drive is going to exacerbate regional inaccessibility and isolate the country’s poorest households. Unleashed nearly 5 years ago, the recommendation put forward by The Progressive Policy Think Tank to ‘create regional transport bodies modelled on TfL at the level of city-regions and combined authorities’ has remained largely ignored. Bizarrely, for groups not entitled to concessionary passes living outside London, bus travel has become a luxury mode of transport.

Of course, eradicating pollution is essential – but placing the burden of this on the shoulders of those who can afford it least is not progressive, especially when there are no alternatives in place. To achieve ‘clean air’, the government must first commit itself to generating a comprehensive, national transport framework based on the model they reserve exclusively, and unjustifiably, for London alone.

Regional bias is responsible for the working-class attainment gap: it can’t be ignored any longer

Just two weeks ago, NEON, the National Education Opportunities Network, released a report exploring the statistical dearth of working class students in top UK universities. These figures revealed, tragically, that ‘more than half of England’s universities have fewer than 5% of poor white students in their intakes.’

Helpfully, though perhaps overdue, this report draws explicit attention to the limitations of current efforts to improve access within higher education (HE): that is, a failure to account for the diverse and intersectional nature of underrepresentation. For the first time, bitterly entrenched regional bias has been officially identified as a barrier to social mobility, with the report’s findings showing that many working-class students living in Low Participation Neighbourhoods do not go on to participate in top HE institutions.

For a long time, we’ve known that there is underachievement of disadvantaged white youngsters across all forms of education. But now we know why: because the majority of these individuals living in ‘Low Participation Neighbourhoods’ come from regional backgrounds. Students living in those areas where university attendance is lowest – which is mainly among regional areas in the North and Midlands – are less likely to apply for ‘Russell Group’ universities, but instead enrol at ‘post-1992’ universities. Wrongly or rightly, these are considered to be less prestigious than their red-brick counterparts. The report showed that Sheffield Hallam University accepted the greatest number of poorer white students, along with Liverpool John Moores and Teeside. The top UK universities admitted barely any.

This is an issue much wider than higher education: it is about the discrepancy in opportunity between the country’s capital and its peripheries in all aspects of life. It isn’t about race. The young working-class individuals deprived from a fulfilling HE experience at more ‘prestigious’ institutions is not because they are white. It is because they live in areas with depressed local funding, terrible schools, high unemployment rates and little access to cultural enrichment.

While London and the South-East are brimming with cultural opportunities, grammar schools and ample prospects to earn a decent living (as well as all the associated ambition bound up with these phenomena), the North-East habitually produces the UK’s worst unemployment rate and possesses not a single grammar school. The capital alone boasts the highest proportion of outstanding schools in the country in both affluent and deprived areas, while the North-East sports the highest number of individuals living on free school meals (and therefore the ones less likely to make it to university).

What this report should make clear is not that working-class students are not being deliberately ‘forgotten about’ and ‘left behind’; only that the same opportunities to succeed are being withheld from them. More accurately, entire regions are left behind, and that incorporates everyone within them: it just so happens that they are predominantly white.

The ‘relative lack of white learners from low participation neighbourhoods (LPN) attending London institutions’, the report explains, reflect the small numbers of LPN in the capital, which is ‘almost universally a high participation neighbourhood area’. This explains why students of any colour living in the capital are more likely to participate in prestigious HE than their regional counterparts. NEON’s analysis found that of all applicants to HE by the LPN demographic, only 22% were accepted. More than half of UK universities have no procedure in place to prevent these students from slipping through the cracks. Instead, HE institutions accepted fewer than 20% of the applicants received from this social group. Doesn’t seem like a sensible way to incite confidence and fight cultures of exclusion, does it?

The take-away point here should be that one form of positive discrimination needn’t be privileged over another. Instead, society must focus on creating, as far as we can, an equal playing field that accounts for all forms of inequality during the admissions process by engaging with different measures of deprivation.

For example, getting 41 students from a state-school in London into Oxbridge is a massive achievement, but this in itself does little to fix the educational and participation imbalance between different regions of the country. The ‘working class’ is a broad church, but it’s important to note that everyone – including poor white students from a regional background – will benefit from wider inclusion policies.

We already have methods to track regional deprivation: now it’s time we put them to use. Take the POLAR quintile. This is a postcode tool that measures the proportion of young people in a specific area that participate at different levels of education. The POLAR4 quintile specifically looks at the proportion of young people who enter higher education aged between 18 and 19 between the years 2009-10 and 2014-15. It should be taken into greater consideration during admissions procedures as part of implementing ‘clear targets to recruit white working-class students’, which the report recommends.

Fees have so far acted as a deterrent for society’s ‘residuum’. As have cuts to local government funding in deprived areas. Rather than persist with the divisive tuition system, new scholarships and maintenance grants for deprived individuals from underrepresented POLAR regions must be created immediately in those institutions showing minimal admissions from LPN backgrounds, especially where living costs are particularly high (like Oxford, Cambridge and LSE, in which LPN acceptances make up only 3%, 2% and 1% of all acceptances).

The Government, meanwhile, must undo years of regional bias in local government funding and investment. Otherwise, divides will get bigger, people will become snobbier and the UK, on the whole, will not be a particularly pleasant place to live.