Caroline Russell: There is a big opportunity to change transport in London for the better. Let’s not waste it

Caroline Russell: There is a big opportunity to change transport in London for the better. Let’s not waste it

Londoners’ absence from public transport during the pandemic has cast a long shadow over our city’s vital infrastructure. The capital’s transport system is more financially dependent on fares than any other world city, and has therefore needed government support to keep it functioning, enabling key workers to reach their jobs during the crisis and making sure people without access to alternative transport can attend appointments and tests. With little money coming into Transport for London (TfL) we stand at a precarious moment. It’s a moment that will bring change, and we need to make sure it’s for the better.

The plan TfL has submitted to the government for making itself financially sustainable in the long-term represents a huge shift in approach, more fundamental than would be seen even following a change of Mayor. In the short term at the very least it would mean bus and Tube services being reduced, fares going up faster than inflation, curtailed investment, and staff facing pay and pensions reviews. Londoners who use TfL services will pay more and get less – that’s not the radical change we need.

I’m worried that the conversation about reshaping transport in London is happening behind closed doors and is being used as an argument against the mayoral system as a whole. It is entirely right that people who represent Londoners take the lead in developing and scrutinising plans for transport in London – but the government is trying to side-step both the Mayor and the London Assembly.

The Mayor has been relatively open and has shared not only the TfL proposals but also the findings of an independent review he commissioned last year. This transparency has not been reciprocated. Over recent months, the government has continued to keep the KPMG review it commissioned of TfL’s finances secret. The only leak of information we’ve had, which may well be in the report, has been that the Treasury is investigating smart fair road pricing for the whole country.

Politicians need to take responsibility and have an honest conversation about transport in cities and across the country. The government has artificially made driving cheaper year after year by freezing fuel duty, while at the same time grossly inflating train fares and decimating bus services. London is trying to resist this two-pronged attack. As it stands, the government risks overwhelming the city with road traffic, congestion and pollution, taking London in the opposite direction of the recovery it needs.

Right now, Londoners who own cars are paying Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) to the government. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, the duty does not reflect the true social cost of their road use in terms of the health and environmental damage it causes. Secondly, that money doesn’t even come to London – it is used by the Treasury to fund Highways England, which has less than one per cent of London’s road within its control. 

With that in mind, it cannot be right to consider bus fare rises whilst fuel duty is held down for the tenth successive year, and for those same bus passengers to have to shell out to fix the roads for people driving in our city. 

London has long-term experience of controlling traffic. The Congestion Charge was introduced in 2003 by the first Mayor, Ken Livingstone. The press – and most politicians at the time – were sceptical at best and outright hostile at worst. We were told the sky would fall in and London would stop functioning. The reverse happened – the congestion charge gave London space to breathe. It reduced traffic and pollution and got more people walking and cycling. It showed the city is capable of change.

What London needs now is a comprehensive plan on road user charging. The Mayor has been very cautious. He is asking one last time for government to give him the VED raised from cars registered in London. And if he doesn’t get it, he would be willing to explore a Greater London Boundary Charge. This would be a simple £3.50 a day charge for drivers to enter London. 

Buried within the plans for the Greater London Boundary Charge is a proposal for a £2 daily fee for vehicles that don’t meet the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) standard. This is actually a pretty radical step, effectively rolling out the ULEZ to cover the whole of London. Many people see congestion and pollution as only an issue for central London. Bringing in a charge to London’s outer boroughs for the dirtiest vehicles should reduce this misconception and help clean up the air.

Among the other ideas in the sustainability plan that need to be put into action is building more homes on TfL land. Much of that land is right next to stations and ideally suited for bringing space for living to transport hubs in our town centres. The government repeatedly hounds the Mayor – as does my Green Party colleague Sian Berry – to build more homes. This land could help him provide a lot more well-located and much-needed new housing.

I know that as Londoners endure this awful second wave of the coronavirus, it’s hard to think of the future. But it is good that TfL is doing so and that, despite the financial situation meaning many long-term investments are now paused, plans are in place that can rebalance our city, put us on a path to a truly green recovery and provide us with a transport network fit for the future we face.

This is an opportunity to make London a safer and fairer place. Let’s use it not to re-establish the old normal, but to build a better, healthier and more inclusive one.

Caroline Russell is a Green Party London Assembly Member. Follow her on Twitter.

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