Dave Hill: A little history of Tory fibbing about road user charging

Dave Hill: A little history of Tory fibbing about road user charging

The faking of a photo by Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall’s campaign to help spread its rumour that Sadiq Khan has a “secret plan” to introduce pay-per-mile road user charging in London is just the latest example of scaremongering about such levies by means of trickery and fibbing London Tories have gone in for in recent years.

During the last mayoral contest, the Covid-delayed 2021 race, the campaign of Tory candidate Shaun Bailey did the same sort of thing. In its case, it alleged that a re-elected Khan would impose a so-called “outer London tax” on motor vehicle owners, involving charging them each time they crossed the Greater London boundary.

The inspiration for inventing this non-existent scheme was a suggestion presented by Transport for London to the Department for Transport for raising around £500 million a year in extra income.

It was one of two ideas, the other, preferred, one being the devolution of Vehicle Excise Duty raised in London to TfL, included in a 115-page financial sustainability plan dated 11 January, 2021. This was compiled by TfL to fulfil a condition attached to the government’s first financial bailout of TfL after pandemic restrictions led to the collapse of its income from fares.

The details of what TfL called the Greater London Boundary Charge were set out on page 99 of the document. These said the theoretical new charge would be “levied on non-resident vehicles entering Greater London” and set at £3.50 per vehicle per day, with a £2 surcharge for those failing to comply with Ultra-Low Emission Zone anti-pollution standards.

It was plainly stated that all London-registered vehicles would be exempt, along with perhaps 10 per cent of those registered outside London entering it, such as emergency vehicles.

How was the boundary charge idea received by the government? Not favourably. Within a month, on 3 February 2021, the then transport secretary Grant Shapps told ITV London’s Simon Harris it was unacceptable.

His claim that the boundary charge would be a form of “taxation without representation” was laughably weak, given that the London congestion charge had been applying to non-Londoners since 2003. But the DfT had TfL over a barrel and any glimmer of a chance of the boundary charge ever becoming a reality was extinguished.

None of that stopped the Bailey campaign kidding Londoners that such a scheme was not only going to happen, but would apply to them as well as to non-Londoners and cost them more money than the TfL document had said.

Prior to Shapps’s public dismissal of the boundary charge idea, Bailey had been proclaiming on Twitter (now X) that Khan would be introducing what he called “a £5.50 commuter tax” and saying this would damage businesses in outer London areas by deterring trade.

Far from piping down after Shapps’s intervention, Bailey and his campaign escalated their misrepresentation of TfL’s rejected suggestion, adding new dimensions of falsehood.

On top of stating that the non-existent Khan policy would charge all vehicle owners affected by it £5.50 when the TfL document had said it would be £3.50 except for the most polluting vehicles, the language of the Bailey campaign’s social media output became less specific about to whom the fantasy charge would be applied.

In a tweet posted just two days after Shapps made his remarks, Bailey claimed Khan “is raising the cost of living for families, businesses and commuters by introducing a £5.50 Outer London Tax”. He added: “As Mayor, I’ll scrap this on day one.”


Here was wording that as well as pretending the boundary charge was going to happen imminently when in fact, it wasn’t and as well claiming it would be set at £5.50 for everyone when, in fact, it wouldn’t could be interpreted by Londoners as meaning that the “tax” would apply to them when entering London – when, in fact, it wouldn’t.

Other Conservatives played the same game. Neil Garratt, contesting the semi-marginal suburban London Assembly seat of Croydon & Sutton, started a local petition headed Sadiq Khan’s Outer London Toll Tax” – a reference to “poll tax”, meaning one applying to everyone – which went on to say that Khan was “planning to turn the London boundary into a digital toll gate” with “cameras at the border of London boroughs and the home counties [which] would charge people £5.50 for entering”. It didn’t specify which people.

It is hard to quantify how effective such misinformation was. Garratt won his seat, but would probably have done so anyway. That said, there were stories at the time about the fictitious “outer London tax” gaining purchase in neighbourhood Whats App groups, fuelling catastrophist rumours. Of course, no such “tax” has ever happened.

The Hall campaign’s howls about pay-per-mile are built on less bogus foundations. The best supporting evidence propagators of the phantom “outer London tax” could come up with was the TfL document saying the Mayor had asked for a “detailed feasibility study” to be conducted, as if this was a massive smoking gun and as if a submission to a hostile DfT wouldn’t have included reassurance to the effect that the idea was more substantial than a whim.

But Khan has shown a readiness to entertain pay-per-mile in the past. In his book Breathe, published in May 2023, he wrote of his administration’s “plans to introduce a new, more comprehensive road-user charging system, to be implemented by the end of the decade at the latest”.

This followed a January 2022 mayoral press release announcing publication of a Khan-commissioned report on how net zero could be accomplished in the capital by 2030. It  said such a system would be needed if the required 27 per cent reduction in car use was to happen. And TfL has disclosed that it’s been looking at how to building the technology required for consolidating road user charging in London into a single, flexible system.

For all that, though, Khan has been repeatedly stating that he has no intention of bringing in pay-per-mile if re-elected for a third term, which would end in 2028. The Tories say he can’t be trusted, but it would be a large promise to go back on.

Meanwhile, it is nothing new for TfL to be looking into new forms of and options for road user charging – it was doing it when Boris Johnson was Mayor. Moreover, you can bet the DfT is doing the same: the government might have dismissed it out of hand, but the Commons transport committee’s conclusion two years ago that there is no viable alternative to a national road-user charging system in the near future is in line with those of a succession of learned reports.

The Susan Hall campaign, however, has narrower and more immediate objectives. Desperate to rev up the shrunken core of London Tory support, it needs a motoring scare story to tell them, just as it did three years ago. As both 2021 and more recent events show, Conservative politicians have no qualms about using devious means to go about it.

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