This article was written in conjunction with Tom Wooldridge.
The City of York Council has promised protection for young people’s services, the inclusion of young people in talks about the city’s future, and improvements to York’s buses in a written statement by Councillor Ruth Potter, Cabinet Member for Education, Children and Young People’s Services.
After York Labour replaced the Liberal Democrats in the local elections earlier this year, The Student Review had hoped to secure an interview with either the Council Leader, James Alexander, or Councillor Potter, but was unable to do so. Instead a series of written questions was sent to Coun. Potter, whose reply outlined the Council’s new plans for young people and education in the city following the political shift.
With regards to the Council’s general aims for students in the city, Coun. Potter said she planned to “ensure York continues to be a place where educational standards are high” and praised York’s existing learning facilities, but warned that there would be “many challenges ahead” now that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government has cut much of the funding previously made available by Labour.
One key point in Labour’s 2011 manifesto was to protect youth services, and this is certainly a promise they appear to be keeping. Beginning on June 30th, cuts were reversed to both the Connexions service, which works to tackle youth unemployment, and to work being done on teenage pregnancy in the city. The Council has also amended its budget to fund a caretaker for the York Youth Café.
Additionally, and again following their manifesto, Labour has made a contribution towards increasing the number of apprenticeships with the Council, stating that they feel these positions can “help young people to develop skills in work”. Coun. Potter said that these investments were worth over £100,000 this year alone.
One popular pledge in York Labour’s manifesto was the creation of a Fairness Commission. This independent body will talk to residents, councillors, trade unions and other groups in order to make recommendations to the council on its budget. The Commission will do this by holding public meetings around the city, which any York resident can attend. Students have often been excluded from influential discussions in the past but Coun. Potter said “The Fairness Commission will talk with all York residents who want to engage with it, including students” and that “Students are an extremely important part of the fabric of this city and we do want to hear from them”. It remains to be seen how well these meetings will be advertised or explained to York’s student population, however.
The Student Review made a point of asking about the Council’s plans for York’s bus services, particularly those provided by First York, as many young people use public buses provided by First every day.
One particular area of concern is the FTRs on service 4 – in addition to the £1.5m already spent on widening roads to accommodate these buses, they are unnerving for cyclists, contribute to congestion by taking up multiple lanes, and have become increasingly costly to use. The Council has already said that it will not be renewing its contract with First for the FTRs and Coun. Potter added to this, saying the cost has been “unacceptable for the benefits it has brought”.
The Council has also previously said it will improve the Park & Ride services, on which many in the city rely, including students using service 3 to get to York College. There were plans to improve the Askham Bar site (where service 3 terminates) but Conservative government cuts have now put these improvements, along with the possible creation of two new P&R services, in jeopardy.
Coun. Potter also stated that the Council will be using a ‘Quality Bus Contract’ to force First to generally “up its game”. There was no mention of what the money currently being spent on the FTRs may be spent on instead, or whether any of the £4.65m awarded to the Council by the Department of Transport from the Local Sustainable Transport Fund would be spent on improving the bus service.
The most pressing transport issue for students in York is undoubtedly the lack of a general discount on the buses for 16-18 year olds. 11-16 year olds can get a YoZone card and university students can buy term passes, but those attending sixth form must pay a full adult fare despite still being in full-time education.
Students have attempted to take this matter into their own hands before. During 2010, Alex Bailey at All Saints RC School in York ran a campaign called Cheaper Buses For Students In York, which gathered over 1300 supporters on its Facebook group. Speaking to The Student Review, Alex explained that despite sitting down with representatives from both the Council and First, First’s near-monopoly on York’s buses meant the group made little headway: “Why did it stop? We just didn’t get anywhere with First. We can’t say, we won’t use you if you don’t lower your prices, because most people are forced to.”
This issue has not just been recognised by students either; after the government announced the discontinuation of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), colleges in York and Selby lobbied for a £180m bursary, which the Deputy Principal of York College, Graeme Murdoch, said would be spent on supporting transport needs for students.
Many students are hopeful that the new Labour Council will be able to make some progress towards rectifying this situation, particularly as Coun. Potter herself has previously taken up this cause. On October 5th 2009, she wrote an open letter to the York Press:
“I uncovered this problem in the summer of 2008, and attempted to get a change of policy through the council to extend the YoZone card to those under 19 years of age and still in full-time education. Although a motion I put was agreed by the council, the bus company, perhaps predictably, refused to play ball, anticipating some loss of revenue.
The present situation remains unsatisfactory. While their peers attending the city’s two universities, and those attending school up to the age of 16, benefit from different concessions, these young people who are supposed to be learning about financial independence and sustainable transport choices are being forced to either beg for money from their hard-up parents or opt for other, sometimes more congesting, transport choices.
These younger residents are not second-class citizens and shouldn’t be treated as such.”
The continuing pressure from students and councillors alike has so far been ineffectual and it is clear the situation will remain until the Council can enforce change. In response to The Student Review’s questions, Coun. Potter acknowledged that the 16-18 age group “gets a raw deal compared to all other students” but stated that “the financial constraints we have been placed under as a council means this is going to be a very difficult goal to achieve, and it is not one we will be able to deliver in this financial year 2011/12”.
Responding to a request for comment, First said they would welcome the Council’s “constructive comments” and that they would continue to work with them.
The company also announced that they have recently reached an agreement with York College to provide a discount to College students via a selection of cheaper tickets, available from August 22nd from the York College Finance Desk. These discounts will include savings of 50p on a daily ticket or £3.50 on a weekly ticket, but do not include single- or return-journey tickets. First said they “are also in discussions with other colleges and the Council” about similar deals, but so far the rest of York’s 16-18 population must continue to wait.
Overall, Labour have certainly promised many positive changes for students in the city, but it remains to be seen how many of them will come to fruition, especially given the Conservative government’s funding cuts which have already delayed some key aims for at least another year.