Canny Ken’s congestion charge move puts Johnson on the spot

At last, the mayoral election is hotting up around genuine issues that affect Londoners rather than the antics of the two main candidates whose eccentricities have threatened to turn the hustings into a bumper episode of Celebrity Big Brother.

On the face of it, Ken Livingstone appears to be taking a big electoral risk with his changes to the congestion charge.  By imposing swinging charges on gas guzzlers while allowing smaller cars, including many popular models, to travel free, it looks rather like the old ‘squeeze the rich till the pips squeak’ type of policy once espoused by former Labour chancellor Denis Healey. The most controversial aspect is that the ‘gas guzzlers’ will no longer be entitled to the 90 per cent residents discount and, instead, their owners will get charged everytime they drive anywhere within the zone. Just turning the ignition on and driving round the corner will cost them £125 per week!  The motoring organisations are predictably squealing about how unfair the world is to motorists and how all these poor families will have to pay huge amounts to take their children to school.

Don’t be fooled.  We have been here before. When the congestion charge was first introduced or it has been changed, there have been dire warnings about how it will damage business, wreck the London economy, drive people out of the city and so on. I remember vividly the first day of the congestion charge five years ago when I was invited to spend the morning at a radio station to comment on the expected chaos and instead was packed off early on to the wonderfully empty London streets because there was nothing to say.

Again, the concerns raised when the charge went up to £8 and when the zone was extended to parts of West London proved groundless. Londoners have coped with the congestion charge and the capital’s economy has boomed.

After five years, a balanced assessment would suggest that the charge has been modestly successful in reducing congestion and, by attracting world wide attention, has turned London appear to be a pioneer on an issue that affects every other major city in the world. Crucially the congestion charge is a rather blunt instrument, enforced by an expensive low-tech method, but by and large it has been successful and while not exactly popular, there have been no poll-tax type riots.

Nor will there be over these new measures even if initially it seems Livingstone’s new ideas may threaten that consensus. In fact, while the measures may appear controversial when listening to the horrified gasps from the AA and RAC, in reality they are pretty modest and most Londoners will be totally unaffected. It seems perfectly reasonable to apply the ‘polluters pay’ principle to cars which emit the most noxious fumes into the environment. Moreover, large cars, particularly 4 x 4s are a menace to other road users, particularly cyclists and pedestrians but also smaller vehicles which will come off worse an accident.

The decision to allow smaller cars to enter the congestion zone for free seems like the stangest part of this package of measures. After all even the most modest vehicle contributes to pollution and if many Londoners trade in their larger cars in order to obtain free entry to the zone, the whole purpose of the congestion charge could be lost. Livingstone and his advisers are taking a punt on this not happening. At the moment, such small cars are a minority of those entering the congestion charge zone and it is unlikely that this situation will change since not many people would downgrade their car for the sake of saving the odd eight quid.

The riskiest aspects of these proposals is that they will not be implemented by the time of the election. Therefore they will elicit the predictable furore, as with the various changes to the congestion charge, but since they will not come into force until October 27 there will be no time for anyone to find out how they work in practice.

Livingstone’s plans, therefore, are worth two cheers. He is right to view congestion as a wider environmental problem that affects the quality of life of everyone in the city. There is no doubt that larger cars place an unnecessary burden on London’s roads, taking up excessive road space in return for providing a modicum of extra comfort to their owners. There is much truth in the old adage that road space is the last good that is rationed by the Stalinist system of queuing because it is scarce and yet provided free. It is amusing to note that the old Lefty, Livingstone, is using market forces to allocate a a finite resource more sensibly and for that he should be commended, despite the motoring lobby’s self interested squeals.

The doubt, however, remains if Livingstone’s new model is workable and whether he can win over the public. He faces a difficult election in less than three months time which he may lose for reasons other than transport, notably because of his refusal to take on board the fact that his increasingly autocratic way of responding to potential misdoings in City Hall is playing badly with the wider electorate.

Should Livingstone lose, it will appear that the electorate has rejected these ideas when, in fact, they will have merely got tired of Ken and his dissembling.  Nevertheless, we should all be grateful to Livingstone for putting forward a controversial policy that will raise the level of debate above the antics of the Ken and Boris show. His ideas put clear blue water between the policies of the main two parties, something which is all too rare in these days when the two main parties are increasingly merging towards a slight right of centre consensus.

This is where canny Ken the crusty old campaigner has an advantage over Johnson who has already reacted uncertainly to the recent introduction of the low emission zone. Livingstone knows that most Londoners never drive into the congestion charge zone during the week anyway and in any case very few own ‘gas guzzlers’ and therefore are not much bothered about a potential £25 charge which they will never have to pay. If Johnson throws his lot in with the motoring lobby and goes all out to attack these changes, he could find that he is out on a limb. There are perhaps just a few thousand owners of gas guzzlers who drive in central London and most of the rest of the electorate will either cheer or be totally indifferent to the prospect of a few relatively well off people being charged extra. Johnson may feel that many Londoners aspire to owning large cars and that this will help in electorall but that, too, would be a mistake. Livingstone is not taking a risk because if the election turns into a referendum on the congestion charge, there can be only one winner.

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