London congestion charge rise down to good old power struggle

  • london
  • May 15, 2020
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Forget health or economic concerns – this is a classic political fight between a Labour mayor and a Tory government

The congestion charge restarts on Monday. Its cost will rise by 30% next month.
Photograph: Dan Chung/The Guardian

Good old-fashioned politics rather than economic, environmental or health considerations seem to explain the decision by Transport for London to reimpose the congestion charge from Monday, hike it by 30% next month, and to also restrict free travel for the young, the elderly and the disabled.

Put simply, a power struggle is taking place between London’s Labour mayor and TfL on one side of the table and a Conservative government on the other.

The row is about the size and the strings attached to a government bailout needed because of the massive drop in numbers using public transport in the capital. Stuck in the middle are the citizens of the capital, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet.

The congestion charge was originally introduced to make London’s traffic flow more freely and the air cleaner. It was suspended at the start of the lockdown in the hope that car travel would help keep the capital ticking over, especially by making it easier for key workers, including nurses, to drive to work.

In recent days the government has urged workers to use cars to travel wherever possible, because it is currently safer than public transport. It is also encouraging cycling and walking. The mayor also wants Londoners to stay away from public transport. He wants them to walk, cycle, or stay at home, but not use cars.

TfL says its cash crisis means it has no choice but to reintroduce the congestion charge from Monday and to raise it from £11.50 a day to £15 next month. Older and dirtier vehicles will also have to pay the Ulez (ultra-low emission zone) charge of £12.50 a day, which has also been suspended in lockdown.

The basic laws of economics suggest that whacking up the congestion charge provides an incentive to find other ways of getting around.

But the continuing need for social distancing means there isn’t the capacity on the tubes and buses to take more than a fraction of London’s usual workforce.

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The second option is to follow the example of cities such as Amsterdam, where people cycle and walk more than they do in London. Amsterdam, though, has a population a tenth the size of London. It is often not feasible for low-paid workers, forced to live in the less expensive outer boroughs of London, to get to work on their bikes (even assuming they have one).

The third option is to suck it up and pay the higher congestion charge. But many of London’s workers – the builders, shopworkers, delivery drivers, plumbers, midwives and security guards – are not highly paid.

For them, the stand off between City Hall and Westminster means putting their health at risk or seeing a bigger slice taken out of their already low incomes.