Not long ago we were told that Londoners were going to have to pay £20 more in council tax a year for the next three years to bail out Transport for London. London’s transport system simply couldn’t function with the current budget it had, forcing the Mayor to take a seemingly painful decision to increase a highly regressive tax. One would assume a mayor wouldn’t take this decision lightly and that the situation must have been desperate.
However, the recent announcement that Khan is going to shorten the congestion charge hours clearly contradicts that. From February, the congestion charge will only apply from 7am to 6pm. Of course, this move will be welcomed by the minority who drive into the City, as well as to the businesses of the West End. However, when one realises this is going to cost TfL as much as 70m in lost levies and penalty fines, it becomes impossible to justify.
Khan was not wrong to say that TfL needs more money when he announced the increase in council taxes. Passenger numbers have plummeted, and even in September without Covid-19 restrictions the number of people using TfL services was just over 60 per cent of what we saw in the same period in 2019. The government has provided several bailouts to help plaster the direct impacts of the pandemic, but without further intervention we risk seeing a managed decline in London’s transport network.
This is why taking away such a lucrative revenue source makes so little sense. The £20 increase in council tax, which will plunge many families into poverty, will only generate about £172m. This is a substantial sum, but a huge amount of that will simply be replacing the £70m in revenue lost from the congestion zone changes.
Aside from accountancy, this move will also directly undermine the clear public interest in lessening the amount of cars in our city. Congestion is dangerous to other road users and pedestrians, and pollution contributes to thousands of deaths annually. A report commissioned by the Mayor of London’s own office found that as many as 4000 deaths in 2019 alone were attributable to air pollution.
If Sadiq Khan is determined to spend money to help revitalise London’s night time economy, he is better off doing that by extending the night tube. The sad reality of living in a major city is that it will never be safe to walk alone at night in many places. However, those of us who don’t live near a station supplied by the night tube are immediately forced to choose between taking the risk of walking, or spending an exorbitant amount for a Taxi or Uber – a prospect that inevitably will put many off from going out at all.
The night tube costs about £17m, and is estimated to cost about £25m a year to run. So we can expect it would be expensive to extend it to serve more stations. However, it would be nowhere near the £70m that it will cost to reduce the hours of the congestion line.
Now is not the time to cut the congestion charge hours. It costs too much, is dangerous, it would worsen pollution and make a fool out of those Khan is impoverishing through the council tax rise. Extending the night tube manages to encompass all of the benefits that come with this move, at considerably less expense, without all of the drawbacks.