View from the House
As the ravenous Congestion Charge zone enveloped a second area of central London earlier this year, the ever-fanciful Mayor of London declared that ‘Cities all over the world are looking to London’s example.’ But just what will these international cities be taking from our Capital’s experiences?
Four years ago I made a speech in Parliament warning that the Congestion Charge was an ideologically motivated assault on the freedom that comes with private car ownership. I proposed that the charge was being rushed through before there had been any improvement in the public transport system, and predicted it would hit small businesses and the relatively poor hardest without raising any real money.
Back then, the Congestion Charge was set at £5 a day and covered a smaller area of my constituency. Now, the Congestion Charge swamps the entirety of my constituency and encroaches into Kensington and Chelsea, ‘taxing’ motorists £8 a day to travel in an area relatively unchanged in terms of traffic. And to what end?
Ken Livingstone defends his Congestion Charge as an environmentally friendly way of raising revenue to improve London’s transport systems and reduce clogging in the Capital. He boasts that £900 million has been raised from the scheme so far, with net revenues being invested in his Transport Strategy. But most of us know by now not to trust what the Mayor tells us via his costly promotional machine at City Hall.
In truth, out of the £900 million raised over four years, there has only been a net surplus of £25 million. Most of the money has simply been guzzled by set up and running costs, despite the £3 increase in the daily charge and the large sums accrued from penalty fines. Londoners have seen scant improvement in their transport network. Instead fares have risen above the rate of inflation and our tubes and buses are more crammed than ever. Furthermore, our city is now peppered with unsightly and intrusive cameras, giving rise to the feeling of living in a police state. And the congestion itself? It has virtually risen to the same level that existed in 2003.
As much as Mr Livingstone had hoped he could bash the living habits of the bourgeoisie who had previously driven to shop in the West End or work in their highly paid City jobs, he has simply made things more difficult for those small businesses and less well-off folk who need their cars to go about their daily lives. I have recently received letters from elderly people whose relatives can no longer afford to drive them to their hospital appointments now that St Mary’s Paddington and Chelsea and Westminster Hospital are within the zone. I have also heard of young families who have to pay a hefty price for driving their children to schools now within the charging area. Public transport is not a practical option for these people and their friends and relatives, so how does the Mayor suggest they pay his charge?
My fear is now that the painful lessons of the London experiment will be ignored, and the government will try to roll out similar road charging schemes across the country. Congestion charging has proved to be no more than a highly regressive tax on London’s car owners, raising virtually no money and making life for countless Londoners even more stressful and plagued by intrusion. With Britain’s mainline trains now beginning to mimic the crush of the London underground, and with travel by coach or bus unviable for most people travelling long distances to work, road tolls and ‘pay per mile’ schemes will simply be another stealth tax on hard working British employees.
Mayor Livingstone may well be right in declaring that other cities will be looking to London’s example. But they may not be taking from it the lessons that he fervently hopes.