Conservative and Labour MPs from in and around London clashed yesterday over possible charges for driving into the capital – while the government warned of “tough choices” to come for Transport for London after the mayoral election on 6 May.
The introduction of a Greater London Boundary Charge has been mooted by TfL and Sadiq Khan as one option for boosting the beleaguered transport network’s revenues post-pandemic. Plans suggested by TfL could see a daily charge levied on non-London residents driving into the capital, possibly set at £3.50 or £5.50 for the most polluting vehicles.
But while no decisions have been taken and implementation would be some years off and only after extensive consultation an opportunity for mayoral electioneering was not missed at a Westminster Hall debate called by Dartford MP Gareth Johnson.
The charge would be a “hammer blow” to Outer London businesses, said Orpington MP and outing London Assembly Member Gareth Bacon, calling on the government to remove mayoral powers to impose the charge.
It would cause “profound, long-term damage”, taxing families going to work, taking children to school or using health services, said Reigate MP Crispin Blunt. Families would be prevented from coming together for religious celebrations and festivals, said Harrow East’s Bob Blackman, while Hendon’s Matthew Offord even suggested the charge was “another example” of a “rigged” devolution system favouring Labour.
The MPs also warned of costs for key workers, with half of London police officers and firefighters living outside the capital, according to Bacon, and limited public transport alternatives around the London border.
But Labour MP Ruth Cadbury (Brentford & Isleworth) argued that the idea was the result of the government’s “failure to give TfL the long-term funding support it needs to keep London’s public transport financially viable.” The charge also had the potential to reduce car journeys across the border by up to 400,000 a day, she said, with drivers shifting to more sustainable transport.
Her colleague, Ilford North MP Wes Streeting described claims Khan had been responsible for TfL’s financial problems as “ridiculous”. The Mayor had cut TfL’s deficit by 71 per cent pre-pandemic, while all government grant had been removed, he maintained. MPs complaining about a “rigged” system in London should “do better” and win the election, Streeting said. “Goodness knows, from the opposition benches we are having to learn that lesson nationally.”
A “better-quality conversation” between London and south east MPs was needed, not just about transport funding but about wider relationships between the capital and the south east and the rest of the country, he added. “We are seeing increasing anti-London and anti-south east sentiment. But levelling up means not doing down the beating heart of the economy, which is London and the south east.”
Shadow transport spokesperson and Ilford South MP Sam Tarry accused the government of “holding Mayor Khan “over a barrel”, leaving him forced “to consider any and every option to keep one of the world’s greatest transport networks afloat”.
Another TfL option, to retain the £500 million Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) raised annually in the capital, currently spent almost exclusively outside the city, was preferable – and had been backed by all parties on the London Assembly, he said. The government has a “fundamental choice – a well-funded transport system not entirely dependent on fares, or cutting services, which is where we are heading.”
Junior transport minister Rachel Maclean confirmed the government would not support the boundary charge, but did not respond directly to her Tory colleague’s calls to intervene to prevent the Mayor introducing it.
The minister did not mention VED retention either, focusing instead on discussions “ongoing” between the government and TfL following this week’s announcement of an extension of the current bailout deal to 18 May.
“When we know how passengers are responding to the Prime Minister’s roadmap to safely unlock our economy, we can continue to work with TfL to explore what support they need,” she said, suggesting that the Mayor would need to face up to “the difficult choices that need to be made to get TfL back on the path to financial sustainability”.
TfL’s “financial stability” plan, submitted to Whitehall in January as a condition of the November bailout, sets out plans to break even by 2023, with £730 million cuts by 2024/25 and remaining funding gaps filled either by retaining VED or imposing the Boundary Charge.
Watch the debate in full here.
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