Expanded congestion charge is just an unjust tax

A map of inner London with the North and South Circular Roads highlighted.
A map of the North and South Circular Roads within London (click for expanded map)

It’s been reported over the last week or so that, in exchange for a government bail-out of Transport for London, the London public and road transport body overseen by the mayor, that the government are demanding not only a rise in bus and train fares but also the extension of the Congestion Charge, a flat toll originally introduced by Ken Livingstone in the early 2000s to curb commuter congestion in central London and raise money for public transport, to the North and South Circular Roads; it currently covers only central London, the area within the inner ring road. This follows an earlier rise to £15 per day and a change to its operating hours so that it operates seven days a week until 10pm. The cause of all this is that during lockdown, reserves were spent and debts run up by running buses for free, mostly empty as they were supposed to be only for key workers, throughout the lockdown after drivers were infected with Covid from their passengers as they paid or checked in their payment cards. That ended when the lockdown did after the buses were adapted so that drivers were isolated, but the capacity of the buses has been drastically reduced and buses remain underoccupied, but clearly take as much money to run as before. Much the same is true of trains. Boris Johnson accused Khan of running TfL down even before the virus hit, but the figures suggest otherwise; Khan has tweeted that Johnson has lied to the Commons and that he had reduced the deficit by 71% since taking over from Johnson in 2016.

The most egregious part of this bailout scheme (which the Government have backed up with a threat to take over the running of TfL if Khan does not agree to it) is the extension of the Congestion Charge. It was already planned to extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the Circular Roads by late next year, which would mean that drivers of older cars, particularly diesels, would have to pay a flat rate to drive into inner London; this would impose an additional £15 charge on everyone. A few months back I said that the ULEZ extension was discriminatory against the south of London because it was about improving air quality, and much less of south London lies inside the zone than the north. The new proposal is discriminatory against the north of London, for the same reason. The North Circular Road includes a vast swathe of suburbia and inner-city residential areas, and in the north-eastern corner it is almost at the edge of Greater London while at Edmonton it runs closer to the M25 than to central London; the South Circular Road runs very close to the south-western corner of central London and then includes only a narrow strip on the south bank between Wandsworth and Kew (though it includes more suburbia to the east). It would also include the Blackwall Tunnel, and there is no other road-based river crossing between there and the Dartford crossing (the two circular roads are linked by a ferry at Woolwich). Meanwhile, the outer suburbs will not be affected at all, including the entire borough of Hillingdon in which lies Johnson’s constituency. The existing central zone includes very little that is residential; when Livingstone extended it to the west during his second term to include Kensington (including the impoverished areas around Grenfell Tower), it was so unpopular that it contributed to his losing the subsequent election to Boris Johnson, who reverted it back to the original boundaries.

So, the areas affected will include Chiswick, Acton, Harlesden, Willesden, Kilburn, Cricklewood, Hampstead, Swiss Cottage, Camden Town, Highgate, Muswell Hill, Wood Green, Holloway, Stoke Newington, Tottenham, Hackney, Stratford, Walthamstow, Leyton, West Ham and East Ham. On the south side it will include parts of Kew, Mortlake, Putney and Wandsworth and all of Battersea, Brixton, Dulwich, Camberwell, Lewisham (including the northern half of Catford), Greenwich and Charlton. If the scheme operates as it does currently, people living in these areas will have to pay a daily charge (and the residents’ discount is currently closed to new applicants) to use their car at all, whether it is travelling to work, to see friends, or to do their shopping. People living outside it will not. Why should people in these areas shoulder a greater share of the burden for TfL’s debts than people in Romford, Bromley, Croydon, Kingston or Harrow? It’s true that many people in inner London do not have a car because they do not need one, but many do, much as they do in outer London. If the bailout has to be paid back quickly (which is dubious, but Tory doctrine is that debt is a bad thing and has to be paid back immediately, unless it’s for war, of course), all of London should pay, perhaps through an increase in general taxation. It should not take the form of a swingeing regressive tax on inner London when the problem is everywhere. However, that idea would hit Tory and Leave voters in outer London; the Tory agenda seems to be to punish parts of the country that did not vote for it or to leave the EU as well as to warn populations what happens when you fail to vote for their candidate.

However, Khan himself has to take his share of the blame for the situation London is in right now. He was elected for a four-year term in 2016 and has been gifted an extra year, which did not need to happen as the new election could have taken place during the lull in coronavirus infections in August. He has imposed a number of changes on the roads controlled by TfL (a network of ‘priority’ roads known as red routes, which confusingly are also mostly primary routes, marked in green on most maps), removing parking and loading spaces, adding physical barriers to cycle lanes, removing lanes or repurposing them as bus lanes, increasing bus lane hours to 24 hours regardless of necessity, and imposing pointless turning restrictions, preventing people turning into or rightwards out of side roads, despite there being no convenient turning point. His ostensible reason is to reduce car use which has increased as a result of reduced capacity on public transport and the risk of infection, but the measures vastly increased congestion as alternative routes were blocked as part of “low car neighbourhoods” by borough councils. There has also been a proliferation of misleading speed limit signs on some major roads, such as the small 20mph repeater signs on the Marylebone Road and the A41 in St John’s Wood. Khan has a policy of rolling out more 20mph zones (red routes are currently excluded from borough 20mph zones), but there is no mention of this on the driving section of TfL’s website. Disabled acquaintances have complained that disabled parking spaces are being removed and that the roadside obstructions (i.e. the ‘wands’ that separate traffic lanes from cycle lanes) make it more difficult for them to get in and out of their vehicles or cabs and are often carried out without consultation with them. It seems to be assumed that “car use is the problem” and that anything that will reduce it will be a good thing.

There is in my opinion an enormous democratic deficit in the entire mayoral system: it is one individual who can make changes unilaterally, albeit subject to consultation (which he is free to ignore, as Livingstone did when extending the congestion charge, or interpret as he likes), with a rubber stamp from the government. If Khan had to answer to an elected council, there is a greater chance that damaging changes could be stopped before they occur. Much the same goes for many of the other “metro mayors” around the country. Admittedly, councils are often stuffed with councillors who vote along party lines, much like Parliament, but it could still be raised in an open, minuted council meeting that removing disabled parking spaces, for example, was discriminatory and illegal, that removing loading bays on main roads is damaging to local shops and that 24-hour bus lanes everywhere are unnecessary. I had the same reservations in 2000 when the scheme was proposed, but the lack of an effective council was justified on the basis that the new authority could not be “another GLC”. It will now take the agreement of one man on behalf of all of Greater London to cave in to the government’s demands for punitive, unjust taxes. Presently he says he will not, but it remains to be seen whether he will stand his ground once the government threatens to remove control of TfL from him.

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