Gareth Bacon is the Leader of the Conservative Group on the London Assembly.
The evidence increasingly suggests that Sadiq Khan is considering the introduction of a London-wide pay as you drive road charge to fix the damage he’s done to Transport for London’s finances. Today I have published the report Highway Robbery: The Case Against Road Pricing in London, which lays out why it is clear that the current Mayor might want to introduce road pricing to London and explains why this would be a huge mistake for London.
During Khan’s mayoralty, TfL’s operational deficit has soared – although short-term cuts helped to avoid it reaching £1 billion last year, it is expected to top £897 million this year – and its debt has climbed to an eye-watering £11 billion. In TfL’s Business Plan Crossrail was meant to be its saviour, with the Mayor putting all his eggs in the basket marked ‘Crossrail will open on time and on budget’, but its delay will cost around £1 billion in lost fares revenue, on top of a whopping £2.8 billion extra to get it built.
This has had a hugely damaging impact on London’s transport network. Over the past three years, Londoners have seen vital Tube upgrades delayed, station improvements put on hold and pro-active road maintenance has been cancelled. The Mayor has even had to cancel his Rotherhithe Bridge vanity project after reluctantly admitting it was unaffordable.
There are a whole host of actions Khan could take that would contribute towards solving TfL’s money troubles. For example, he could cut costs by taking on the militant transport unions by seeking to ban strikes on the tube, or he could abandon the economic illiteracy of his partial fare freeze which has cost TfL upwards of £640 million in lost income during his mayoralty, or he could end the scandal of offering free travel to friends and partners of TfL employees. But he has done none of these things. Instead, the Labour Mayor appears to be eyeing up London’s motorists for what could be the biggest cash grab by any Mayor in London, ever.
Left-wing politicians have been pushing Khan to consider road pricing for some time, and earlier this year the Centre for Economics and Business Research investigated the issue and proposed charging motorists 8p per mile in London. Taking this proposal, the average driver in London would be handed an additional £519 bill each year on top of the £731 they currently pay in motoring taxes. The total income to TfL from road pricing in London would reach £1,349,504,000, so it’s easy to see why Khan might be so keen to squeeze more money from London’s motorists.
This would be a significant bill for motorists in London, representing a potential 41.5 per cent increase on the motoring taxes the average London drivers pays. We’ve already seen the damage that rushing the Ultra-Low Emission Zone caused to working people and small businesses. A London-wide road charge would push London’s lowest earners and small businesses off the road entirely.
The Mayor might think he can get away with this politically because he knows it’s the Conservative-voting outer London Boroughs that would be the hardest hit. For example, in my constituency of Bexley and Bromley, the public transport is often so poor that to travel by train between Bexleyheath and Orpington would take 55 minutes despite only being eight miles apart. Khan simply doesn’t understand that in much of London driving isn’t just an option, it’s a necessity.
The Mayor will try to justify this charge by pointing to the end of the government grant to TfL, saying he has no choice but to introduce road pricing. Khan has already tried to prepare the ground by claiming, falsely, that motorists are subsidised by public transport users despite the subsidy given to TfL’s loss-making bus service now reaching £722 million. My report explains how, in reality, the reverse is true.
For too long London’s motorists have been given a bad deal not only by the Mayor of London, but the government. I can readily understand the Government’s reluctance to devolve money to a Mayor who has repeatedly wasted taxpayers’ money. Nevertheless, there is a strong argument for doing so in this case. London-registered vehicles pay around £500 million in Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) but the money is spent on roads outside the capital despite 90 per cent of Londoners’ journeys take place entirely on the capital’s roads. In London, there is a cross-party consensus that VED should be devolved to London. Now is the time for the Conservatives to make it happen.
Devolving VED to London would both undermine any attempt by the Mayor to introduce road pricing in London and benefit London’s motorists. The Mayor would like to argue that introducing road pricing is a necessity because it is the only way TfL can afford to properly maintain London’s roads. Devolving VED would undermine this claim. Furthermore, the money should only be handed over on the strict condition that it is used to restore TfL’s pro-active road maintenance budget which the Mayor cancelled to save £200 million a year. It should also be used to restore the Local Implementation Plan (LIP) budget which Khan has heavily cut, despite explicitly promising not to. LIP funding is vital in helping boroughs improve their transport networks. VED funding must be used to restore it.
This is not to pretend that devolving VED to the Mayor would fully fix the immense damage he’s caused to TfL’s finances, but if done correctly it would start to turn things around without giving him the leeway to waste money on ill-considered vanity projects.
Khan is closer than we think to announcing this policy. He has repeatedly refused to rule out introducing road pricing in London and he recently signed a contract with Capita Business Services Ltd to support existing road charging schemes and “potential future road and infrastructure charging schemes” until 2021. However, he knows that road pricing, if fully understood, would be unpopular in London. By drawing attention to his plans now, my London Assembly colleagues and I hope to put pressure on him to rule out this damaging suggestion. If he won’t do so, at the very least he should be open about his intentions and make clear in his manifesto that he hopes to introduce road pricing should he be re-elected as Mayor. That way Londoners will know that if they wish to avoid having their freedom taxed by being charged for every single mile they drive, they need to elect Shaun Bailey in 2020 and vote Conservative in the GLA elections.