Boris Johnson is discovering the hard way that as mayor he cannot just be the blond buffoon with the good one-liners but that running London involves making tough decisions. He faced a difficult choice between cutting back services, particularly buses which eat up £600m of subsidy per year, or putting up fares to ensure that service levels could be maintained. .
Johnson was in a hole, which he partly dug himself. The initial problem was that Tube patronage has gone down by 5-6 per cent, blowing a hole in next year’s budget. Moreover, he limited his options by refusing to increase the council tax levy for City Hall and by scrapping the £25 congestion charge for larger cars, and his promise to abolish the Western Extension of the congestion charge zone, a policy commitment which he reiterated yesterday, further increased the funding gap. Having talked up the proposed £16bn Crossrail project and supported the expensive Tube upgrades proposed under the Public Private Partnerhip, his only option was to grit his teeth and announce inflation busting fares rises.
Even though many of his voters in outer London will suffer the most as the rises have been skewed towards bus rather than Tube passengers, it was the right decision. Bus usage has soared in recent years thanks to improvements in frequency and reliability introduced by Johnson’s predecessor, Ken Livingstone. Fares rises, in fact, have been kept relatively low and therefore the increases are unlikely to deter many people using them. Cutting services would have forced many people back into their cars adding to the congestion on London’s already overstretched roads.
In fact, it is quite a canny package. Some station upgrades have been scrapped, and a few very limited reductions in tube and bus mileage, but overall the level of service provision has been maintained.
This is an interesting pointer to how the Tories are going to deal with the tough decisions they are going to face if they win the election. Johnson’s insistence on maintaining services rather than cutting back shows just how difficult Tory ministers will find it in government. Boasting about the breadth and depth of cuts at Tory party conference is one thing, implementing them in real situations that affect voters is quite another, as Johnson has found out.