Congestion Charge row hides an opportunity for London

Ben Rogers
·2 min read
Sadiq Khan criticised Rishi Sunak's new package of financial support for workers and firms: REUTERS
Sadiq Khan criticised Rishi Sunak's new package of financial support for workers and firms: REUTERS

A couple of months after Boris stepped down as mayor, I was at an event where he reflected on his time at City Hall. He said his plan was to stay out of London politics, while doing what he could to help the city behind the scenes. Really?

Transport for London has seen its fare revenues plummet as a result of the pandemic. But where the Government has provided more or less unconditional funding for train operators outside London, it has sought to make political capital out of TfL’s financial woes, blaming the Mayor and imposing tough conditions. It was revealed last week that the Government now wants Sadiq Khan to commit to new conditions including the extension of the congestion charge to the North and South Circulars, in line with the new Ulez in October 2021.

But the proposal went down badly not just with the Mayor but with Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey. The Government is now, rightly, backing away.

Here are just a few of the things wrong with it. The legislation covering congestion charging demands widespread consultation — this prevents it serving as any sort of emergency measure and means it would be hard to get it set up in time for the October deadline.

We have the technology to charge drivers depending on distance driven and their contribution to congestion

Congestion charge zone residents have in the past been given heavy discounts for the charge, so extending the zone would allow residents across the whole expanded area to drive into the current central zone virtually for free. This would certainly lead to an increase in pollution and congestion in central London and a possible drop in charge revenue.

It’s true that the Mayor could impose a charge on residents as well as non-residents. One of the conditions that government imposed on TfL with the first bailout was ending the exemption for new residents, who now have to pay £15 every time they get in their car. But extending this to the whole new Ulez would be extraordinarily unpopular, especially with car-owning Tory voters.

There is an opportunity here. We have the technology for a new regime, which charges drivers depending on distance driven and their contribution to congestion and pollution. The Government could even say that it will make further funding to TfL conditional on a scheme of this kind in the next mayoral term.

This would give the next Mayor some cover and incentive to do the right, but politically difficult, thing. And it would be in keeping with Boris’s promise to help London wherever he could.

Ben Rogers is director of Centre for London @benrog