SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 72, February 2003

Livingstone’s congestion charge gamble

This month sees the introduction of congestion charges for motorists driving into central London. But can this scheme, which is not being introduced as part of a broader socialist transport policy, really deal with London’s traffic gridlock? JIM HORTON writes.

LONDON MAYOR Ken Livingstone’s congestion charges have already sparked a diplomatic row with the US, whose embassy staff will have to pay. Souring relations ahead of a bloody assault on Iraq, the US claims that the charge violates the 1961 Vienna convention and is set to retaliate – not with weapons of mass destruction, but with a similar charge for British diplomats in Washington.

UK-US relations are the least of Livingstone’s worries, though. More important to him will be whether the scheme can work and what the consequences will be for his re-election campaign in May 2004. There has been a mass of propaganda on buses, underground tube stations, television and radio, promoting the charge. But it is a major gamble for Livingstone. No other city in the world has attempted anything on this scale. If the charge is successful, Bristol, Leeds, Birmingham and Edinburgh could follow suit and the idea of tolls on motorways could also be revisited.

Everyone in London wants something done about the horrendous traffic congestion, and the resultant pollution that blights the lives of millions. The issue is whether this initiative is capable of resolving this seemingly intractable problem.

The scheme is ambitious. From 17 February, between 7am and 6-30pm, Monday to Friday, most motorists will have to pay £5 a day to drive into a designated central London zone. At a cost of £200 million to set up, 700 digital cameras at 200 fixed sites (plus mobile units and patrols) will scan traffic, reading 25 registrations a second. At the end of each day computers will compare vehicles that have driven into the zone with those that have paid the charge or are exempt, with non-payers facing hefty fines. There are full discounts for emergency services and the military, some National Health Service (NHS) and local authority journeys, breakdown services, disabled blue badge cars, black taxi cabs, motorbikes, and alternative fuel and electric vehicles. But NHS and other public-sector staff travelling to work will not be exempt.

Gridlock London

THERE ARE SOME compelling arguments for supporting congestion charges. There are also serious flaws in Livingstone’s scheme, however, both in its effects and its failure to take account of the wider issue of urban development under capitalism.

There is clearly an acute problem in central London, although Livingstone recently confessed that much of the worsening congestion since last year was due to the amount of simultaneous major road works. One hundred and ninety different companies dug up London’s roads in 2002 causing 40,000 days per month of disruption – 95% of all roadworks. Transport for London (TfL) and local councils carried out the remainder. This lack of coordination has been exacerbated over the last two decades with the privatisation of public utilities.

Not surprisingly, a sizable number of Londoners, 46% according to one opinion poll, support Livingstone’s policy. Road transport is the single largest producer of atmospheric pollution: 25% of carbon dioxide (contributing to global warming); 28% of CFCs (which attack the ozone layer); 53% of nitrogen oxide (causing smog, acid rain, and damage to plant and animal life); 90% of carbon monoxide (a poisonous gas); 46% of hydrocarbons and 47% of black smoke emissions (both of which are hazardous to health). Cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases in London have risen dramatically over the past decade.

Over a million people travel into central London in the morning peak period. Only 12% go by car, the vast majority, about 80%, take public transport. But during peak hours this still means 40,000 vehicles an hour entering what will become the congestion zone. Average traffic speeds in the capital are below ten miles per hour, and in central London just three miles per hour.

Many people feel that the limits of car use have been breached and that the car invasion of our cities, and the resultant congestion and pollution, cannot continue. A YouGov survey of Londoners commissioned by Transport 2000 showed that 64% want more bus lanes, 67% more cycle lanes, and 61% better pedestrian facilities such as wider pavements and more crossing places.

Livingstone is banking on 20,000 people abandoning their cars, with 15,000 switching to buses and the remainder dividing between rail and tube (which, he argues, is equivalent to one additional passenger on each train and tube carriage each day). TfL claims that the £200 million BusPlan initiative will deliver the biggest improvements for 50 years, with 350 extra buses and the introduction of double-deckers on ten routes, accommodating more than 11,000 extra people in peak hours. In addition, there are plans for new Crossrail links, tram systems and trolleybus schemes.

All this is to be welcomed, but should congestion charges be supported? Livingstone’s scheme is based on a government-commissioned report which concluded that if drivers were charged £5 a day traffic would fall by 10-15% and delays by double that. The government’s plans to introduce congestion charges, however, were subsequently made voluntary for local authorities in order to avoid the potential wrath of voters. New Labour has held back from supporting Livingstone’s scheme. Hedging its bets, the government is likely to promote the extension of the scheme to other cities if it is a success, while accepting none of the flak if it fails.

And there is much that could go wrong. There are questions over the accuracy of the vehicle licensing authority’s records, and the automatic number plate recognition technology. Similar congestion charging systems elsewhere reveal that the technology has trouble differentiating Vs and Ws, and Ms and Ns. Difficulties also arise with odd-shaped plates and different weather conditions. Some drivers are looking at ingenious ways of obscuring their number plates when they enter and exit the charging zone.

Livingstone has given the job of running the system to the private company Capita. The private sector has an ignominious history of providing failed public service technology projects, most notably in the NHS, Inland Revenue, Passport Office, and the Child Support Agency. Capita has been embroiled in some high-profile fiascos, including the delayed child protection vetting procedures by the Criminal Records Bureau. Lambeth council sacked Capita from running its housing benefit service after it was judged to be ‘deeply flawed’ and there are problems with its handling of council tax in the same borough. This is not, however, a one-off venture into public-private partnership (PPP) for Livingstone. Precisely at the time when the private finance initiative (PFI) has been shown to have failed schools, he has done a volte-face on private company involvement in London, endorsing business offers to invest £60 billion in public services.

The test for Livingstone is will the policy cut congestion? He has pledged to abandon the scheme if within six months it is shown not to be working. In Durham congestion charges have cut traffic by 90%, but the London metropolis is hardly comparable to that, far smaller, city. Elsewhere in the world similar schemes seem to have had some success, cutting traffic in Singapore by 13% and in Trondheim, Norway by 10%. In Toronto, Canada, journey times were halved. Generally though zones have been set up where there is much better public transport.

Experts are divided on whether the scheme will deter enough drivers to make any noticeable improvement. And how long will it be before London’s public transport system reaches saturation point? David Begg, chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport, has warned that "when it comes to rail and tube there will be real capacity problems… heavy investment would be required, and over a very long period of time".

Capitalism is incapable of such sustained, planned development. Nationally, the government has recently abandoned its pledge to increase passenger numbers on trains by 50% over the next ten years. The Strategic Rail Authority is pushing for a 20% reduction in spending on the railways and cuts to 100 train services a day. Yet overcrowding already results in millions of rail passengers suffering chronic health problems. The Rail Passenger Council has launched an investigation into what has been described as ‘cattle truck train syndrome’, which induces high blood pressure, chronic anxiety and even fatal heart conditions.

London’s population is projected to grow by 700,000 by 2016, compounding the problem. Bus use has already increased by 6% in the past year, carrying the highest volume of passengers since 1965. Notwithstanding the extra buses to soak up people avoiding the congestion charge, the system will have difficulty coping with this ‘natural’ growth. Integrated urban development, taking into account people’s needs as well as economic and environmental factors, requires planning. That has to be based on mass democratic participation and control, which is not possible under capitalism. Ironically, the unplanned consequences of the developing recession may do more to temporarily reduce traffic in central London than congestion charging.

Who pays?

NOTWITHSTANDING OPINION poll support, many workers are angry at the scheme. Residents living in the zone, for example, are not exempt. To be eligible for a 90% discount residents have to pay £10 to register and purchase block passes covering five, 20 or 252 consecutive days.

There are other more immediate problems. Vehicles exempt from the charge will continue to travel through the zone, as will commercial traffic with business in the area. Other commercial traffic, freight and private cars, not willing or unable to afford the charge, will have to find alternative routes. The London assembly’s transport committee has warned of ‘rat running’, predicting that many streets in inner London, but outside the zone, will experience a rise of up to 200 cars an hour as drivers attempt to avoid the charges.

The London Ambulance Service (LAS) has warned that vehicles moving in and out of the zone will have to wait longer at red lights. It fears that built-up traffic around the edge of the zone will result in ambulances taking longer to get patients to hospital. LAS estimates that it will face 28,000 extra ambulance trips a year because people will not use cars to get to casualty departments in central London hospitals.

Livingstone’s scheme will also do nothing to alleviate the severe congestion elsewhere. Short journeys by bus throughout London are often horrendously time-consuming. An attempt to prevent commuters parking their cars just outside the zone, with the introduction of Controlled Parking Zones in areas such as Hackney, has angered local residents who have to pay £80 for a yearly permit allowing them to park their own vehicles where they live.

The trade unions, UNISON, the National Union of Teachers, the GMB, and the Royal College of Nursing, are considering a legal challenge. Public-sector workers are already struggling with poor pay and astronomical housing costs. Livingstone has recently supported the London weighting campaigns of public-sector unions and the fire-fighters’ pay campaign yet, at the same time, he wants to slap £1,200 bills on the low paid working in central London. Employers are refusing to reimburse those workers who continue to drive to work and the Inland Revenue will not allow people to deduct the charges from their tax bills. Workers will be faced with a stark choice: pay the daily £5 charge or use the overcrowded public transport system.

The rich will not be deterred by the congestion charge. It will be ordinary workers on unsociable shifts, market traders and those struggling with small businesses who will be hardest hit, confronted either with a cut in income, going out of business or taking public transport late at night. Many train stations in London are located in remote, isolated areas, desolate in the evening. Services need to be more frequent, running throughout the night, with stations well lit and staffed. But there is also the problem of walking home late at night from the train and tube stations or bus stops. Many women in particular feel safer using their cars. More and cheaper licensed taxi services could provide an interim solution.

Overall, charging puts the blame for congestion onto individual motorists, deflecting responsibility from a society based on the private ownership of industry, and transport that puts profit before society’s needs. People need good, safe and affordable alternatives, not penalties that will hit the working class.

No longer Red

IN HIS Manifesto for London for the 2000 mayoral election Livingstone stated: "The single most important priority for the mayor and Greater London Authority will be to solve the crisis of London’s transport system". Pointing out that government grants were cut from £200 million in 1990 to £30 million in 1999, Livingstone called for more central government investment in tube, rail and buses. But, three years on, no significant new investment has been won. With congestion charges likely to generate a net operating profit of £121 million next year, many workers might be forgiven for cynically believing that they have more to do with raising extra revenue by adding a hefty burden onto low-paid workers, than tackling the serious problem of congestion.

Livingstone talks of cutting traffic circulation by 10-15% through this scheme. Yet in his ‘Red Ken’ days of 20 years ago, his ‘Fares Fair’ policy of hugely subsidised bus and tube fares, reduced car arrivals in central London by an impressive 21%. Since the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC), tube and bus fares have increased by 46% in real terms. Traffic volume in London has increased massively since then requiring more drastic measures, but the change in Livingstone’s approach is clear: the replacement of a progressive fares policy with what is now effectively a new regressive tax.

Back then, Livingstone failed to organise an effective campaign in defence of his policies and the GLC. Today he has done nothing to obtain the necessary investment from New Labour, capitulated over PPP on the tube, raised council taxes (doubling the GLA precept under his mayoralty, partly to pay for bus improvements) and is now introducing congestion charges.

Some supporters of charging point to an unhealthy car culture. But individual car owners and consumers are not responsible for this. There is relentless, clamorous advertising of the latest car models – which never show cars stuck in traffic jams. ‘Car culture’ and bias towards road transport policy are not surprising given the dominance of the automobile industry. Oil and car companies comprise eight of the top ten and 23 of the top 50 multinationals.

Nationally, the government has now discarded its targets for reducing congestion by 6%, claiming that economic growth has made the target unrealistic. For decades governments have given priority to car-dominated transport to the benefit of big business and the freight industry and to the detriment of the majority of society who are not car drivers but rely on walking and public transport. The car’s domination places a huge cost on society, including damage to the environment, the loss of land, ill health, injury and death. Notwithstanding Livingstone’s good intentions, congestion charges, while perhaps reducing some traffic, will not deal with the fundamental problems of urban development under capitalism, of which traffic gridlock is just one stark manifestation.

Nearly 90% of the population of Britain lives in towns and cities. For decades the neglect of public services, housing and transport has led to a decline in the quality of life for millions of workers. Money has been spent mainly on private developments concentrating on leisure and shopping provision while local government grants and infrastructure investment have been cut. Privatisation, and poor, under-funded public transport, along with increased distances between home, work, school, shopping and leisure facilities, have fuelled car dependency. And if you have a car and have paid the tax and insurance, it makes economic sense to use it as much as possible.

Welcome though the extra buses are, Livingstone has done nowhere near enough to provide alternatives to car use. There is scope for rapid rail networks, trams and electric buses. Train capacity and frequency could be vastly expanded. There are hundreds of closed overground lines that could be re-opened. But while Livingstone has responsibility for the tube and buses, the London mayor has no control over the railways.

Public transport needs to be integrated, with co-ordination between bus, train and tube services, as well as road transport. Livingstone and the government claim to want this but private ownership and the profit-driven capitalist system are incapable of providing a safe and integrated transport system. Massive investment is needed, but this should not be from the pockets of workers through any form of congestion charges. It should come from big business and the rich, the re-nationalisation of the buses, tube and railways, and the savings gained from a publicly-owned, planned and integrated public transport system.

A socialist transport policy, while massively expanding affordable public service provision, would prioritise the needs of the environment and safety, as well as encouraging walking and cycling. Cars currently take up 30% of city space. This could be used for walkways, cycle lanes and the pedestrianisation of shopping areas and squares. A socialist transport policy would be a major plank of a socialist urban policy, involving massive investment in public services, housing and leisure, and a planned approach to land use to reverse the horrendous overcrowding of our cities.

Tory London assembly member, Angela Bray, has spoken of "a growing mood for civil disobedience" against the congestion charge. Referring to the 1989-91 campaign against the poll tax introduced by her party, Bray argued that "‘can’t pay, won’t pay’… is a slogan that is going to come back into use. It will serve Mr Livingstone right to have to stand on the other side of the barricades this time". (The Guardian, 21 January) While comparisons with the mass anti-poll tax campaign – which was led by Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party, and involved millions of non-payers – are wide of the mark, at best there will be a grudging acceptance of the scheme by motorists and a chance for the Tories to portray themselves as defenders of ‘ordinary Londoners’. Unfortunately, Ken Livingstone’s congestion charge is another example of how he has thrown away the opportunity to fight for a real transformation of London created by his 2000 mayoral election victory over the establishment parties.


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page