Sadiq Khan’s new doughnut stragegy

Today I learned that Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London who has had his term extended for an extra year because of the pandemic and who is standing for another four-year term, plans a surcharge for all motor vehicles coming into London from outside (this will not apply to those registered in London). The charge will initially be set at £3.50, rising to £5.50 for those which are not ULEZ-compliant, and apply to all motor vehicles seven days a week from 6am to 7pm. The details are in this PDF, starting on page 99. The mayor has asked TfL to carry out a “feasibility study” into “the case for such a scheme, potential alternatives, and impacts on traffic, congestion, air quality, inclusion, health and London’s economy” which will also consider hours of operation, potential exemptions, and fees. Still, the fact that he is proposing it at all, even if some believe the scheme will never happen in practice, is worrying because of the way the mayoralty operates (and because he has managed to keep this scheme so quiet).

A map of an area of south-west London, showing the border between the London area and the neighbouring county of Surrey, which cuts through a number of residential areas with amenities on the London side.
A map of part of the border of Greater London and Surrey (the border is the dot-dash purple line). Note the closeness of the border to Worcester Park, which is part of London.

I live near the edge of London and have relatives living on the other side of the boundary. Some areas just outside London are very wealthy, like most of Elmbridge borough in Surrey which has large tracts of gated developments full of large houses. Others, like much of Epsom and Ewell borough where my aunt and uncle and their families live, are more suburban, consisting of semi-detached houses. They are not impoverished areas, just areas inhabited by families who have done fairly well and bought houses through the usual mortgage route when they were a lot cheaper than they are now. At the time they bought them, no such scheme was under consideration. Some areas have bus routes into nearby town centres which are in Greater London (Sutton and Kingston), but others do not. The nearest or most convenient supermarkets are also often in Greater London, such as the Waitrose in Worcester Park and Surbiton, the Tesco in New Malden and the Sainsbury’s in North Cheam. The point is that the border, which was imposed during the 1960s local authority reorganisation, cuts through communities. Both sides were part of Surrey until that point. The character of the houses on both sides is similar.

Of course, there are also town centres the other side of the border, notably Epsom, and supermarkets at places like Epsom, Cobham and Byfleet. London residents needing to access these places will not be subject to a charge while those coming in will. The upshot is that fewer people will come into the outer town centres and supermarkets while the numbers travelling out to access often larger supermarkets near the M25 will not change, and at least one of the supermarkets (to say nothing of other businesses nearby) inside Greater London will be in jeopardy. Khan’s “Financial Sustainability Plan” claims that “it is clear there is a need to take action to address the challenge of high levels of traffic entering Greater London each day”, yet it is not a ‘challenge’ for those of us with families across the border, nor for people running businesses this side. It keeps families together and brings in much-needed revenue. True, some (not all) of these journeys could be done by bike or public transport, and more so once the pandemic is behind us. But a journey by car across the Greater London boundary is no more polluting than a journey of the same length within it and if it were not for the artificial boundary, it would not be an issue anyway.

This would not be so concerning if there were a democratic brake on Sadiq’s schemes. The problem is that the mayoralty system only requires him to go through the motions of feasibility studies and consultations before making the decision himself, which is then rubber-stamped by central government. The same happened with Ken Livingstone’s extension of the congestion charge into residential areas of West London, which cost Labour two terms from 2008 to 2016: I recall him dismissing the negative results of his consultation as “not a referendum”. So, if his feasibility studies come back positively, he can carry out a ‘consultation’ and dismiss the objections of those actually affected (most of whom do not have a vote in the mayoral election) as people who don’t like change, or don’t want to get out of their cars, or marginal to the benefits the extra revenue might bring the rest of London, and implement it anyway.

As previously noted in my entry on ‘devolution’ in West Yorkshire, metropolitan mayors are a fundamentally undemocratic system; the assemblies have limited powers and cannot bring forward their own plans or reject the mayor’s. The positions are often held by men (there has not been a female mayor of London yet) who want to make their mark, to impose a high-profile scheme which will be attributed to them: Livingstone’s congestion charge, Johnson’s bikes (actually a scheme started by Livingstone before he left office) and garden bridge. One also recalls the sudden changes imposed on many red routes in London, notably Tooting where people had previously been able to park for short periods outside shops to pick up goods or food; Khan ripped these out without notice last year and imposed turn bans on a lot of the roads off the main road, making it extremely difficult for people to come in to use those shops and restaurants, all of which pay taxes, including to Khan’s office. My impression was of a man gone wild, acting without a mandate during an extra year as a caretaker mayor.

When Zac Goldsmith was running his Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan with the help of Lynton Crosby in 2016, it was observed that he was operating a “doughnut strategy”, playing off outer London against inner London. It was a “no-brainer” to support Labour against that. It’s depressing that Khan is running a similar strategy in reverse, proposing punitive taxes on people living near London who come in to spend money to prop up bus services in inner London. As with the congestion charge, the charges will no doubt rise and rise again as they become a convenient source of revenue to plug holes in the mayor’s budget. I will not be voting for him and I urge anyone who might possibly be affected to seriously consider other options.

Image source: OpenStreetMap.

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