Tuesday, 3 April 2012

London Mayoral Election 2012 - Congestion Charge policies UPDATED 2

3 May 2012 will be the London Mayoral election when Mayor Boris Johnson (Conservative) will try for a second term. In 2008 he defeated Labour's Ken Livingstone, who is well known for having introduced the congestion charge to London.

As a London resident, below are the policies of all of the Mayoral candidates in this year's election on the congestion charge, road pricing and tolling specifically.  I am listing the candidates in their order of expected success.  The election is undertaken using a preferential system.  Voters choose their first preference candidate and are free to choose a second preference if the first preference is not one of the top two candidates.  If no candidate gets over 50% of the vote, the second preferences of all voters are added to the top two candidates (unless the first preference was one of them).  It is widely expected the top two contenders (based on polling) will be the incumbent, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, again.  So what are their policies?

Boris Johnson - Conservative

During his term, Boris consulted on whether to abolish the Western Extension of the congestion charge zone and because of the result of that consultation, he did abolish it, whilst raising the price of the central zone to £10 (US$15.90).  He also introduced a number of changes including automatic detection based charging.  Instead of having to consciously declare for every entry into the charging zone (or prepurchase a week, month or year in advance), a motorist can register (for a fee) and be billed for every occasion only, which is a considerable saving.  In addition, those who register for this system get a £1 discount per day.  In short, this has benefited those driving in the former Western extension and those who drive regularly into the charging zone in terms of convenience, although the price has gone up in the central zone (which may be seen as reasonable to maintain a consistent level of demand suppression).

Boris's policy on the congestion charge is basically business as usual.  He has no plans to expand it in his next term, although road pricing is a long term option in the Mayor's transport strategy (which is no change from before).  The manifesto on transport (PDF) is here.

He promises to never expand the charge London wide or introduce a £25 charge on "family cars" (a reference to policies promoted by other candidates).

Nothing ambitious there, but not surprising in the current economic environment.

A minor additional policy on tolls is in relation to the residents' discount applying to the central government owned Dartford Crossing which is to call for "residents within Greater London who live close to the Dartford Crossing – notably those living in Bexley and Havering - to be given the same discount on the Dartford toll as residents of Dartford and Thurrock".

No mention of tolls for any new Thames Crossings, although they are likely to be an option for the proposed Silvertown Crossing.

UPDATEThe debate on local radio station, LBC, last night had Boris say he would freeze the congestion charge.

Conclusion: Expect no change from Boris.  He doesn't promise no increase in congestion charge, and he doesn't promise no toll on a new Thames Crossing, but it is difficult to promise everything you wont do! No appetite for anything radical on the congestion charge, but also none to abolish it!

Ken Livingstone - Labour

Ken introduced the Western extension of the congestion charge, but his manifesto (PDF) says he has promised not to reintroduce it because to do so would be "too expensive", as would his previous pledge of introduce a £25 charge on so-called "gas-guzzlers".  He has promised to freeze the congestion charge at current prices for four years.  So he may even look as being less interested in road pricing than Boris Johnson.  This could be a tacit sign that Ken recognises that there are few votes in expanding congestion charging during an economic slowdown.

There is one interesting related policy.  He supports a smart parking system similar to the trial in San Francisco being applied to London which I wrote about last year.  That is a good idea.  It requires work with boroughs, but by providing real time information about parking availability, and adjusting parking to demand, it could improve access for motorists, and also reduce congestion.

Conclusion: Ken is getting more conservative.  This part of his transport policy is almost identical to Boris.  His parking idea has a low profile, but is a worthwhile idea that should be advanced.

Brian Paddick - Liberal Democrats

Brian came third to Boris and Ken in 2008, and given the Liberal Democrats are in coalition with the Conservatives at the central government level, it may be more interesting whether his views are closest to Ken's or Boris's.  He appears not to have a transport manifesto out yet, and his website makes no reference to the congestion charge at all.  With a month to go, it's getting late.  The Liberal Democrats at the 2010 national election supported a shift to national road pricing, is Brian Paddick getting cold feet about embracing that at a London level, or will it just be business as usual as well.   Asked by the BBC as to who his favourite Londoner is, he answered "Sherlock Holmes".  Hmmm.

UPDATE: The debate on local radio station, LBC, last night had Brian apparently calling for the congestion charge to be "reviewed" because it "isn't working".  That, of course, could result in any outcome ranging from abolition to expansion.

UPDATE 2: Liberal Democrat London Assembly Leader Caroline Pidgeon elaborates in the Guardian that the Liberal Democrats want to have the congestion charge vary by time of day, so that it targets the most congested periods, and that the charge should increase in line with any public transport fare increases.  This would be a notable improvement, and one that might even be palatable, although the profile of congestion in the central zone is unlike typical U shaped demand curves in most cities.  Bear in mind that the charge is effectively a day pass for unlimited access.  Would someone paying offpeak only be allowed access for a more limited time?  More thinking needed there, but it is definitely a step forward.

ConclusionThe party policy does appear to be to make some well motivated adjustments, it is unclear whether it will make much difference in the context of this scheme.  Still, it seems to be perhaps the most economically rational policy of them all.

Jenny Jones - Greens

To her credit, the Green Party candidate Jenny Jones has been open about the party's (and her) policy which is not afraid of expanding congestion charging.  This is by far the most radical policy on road pricing on offer.

Unsurprisingly this isn't about spending any money on roads or replacing other taxes.  It is about using road pricing as a tool to penalise and deter road use, not about economically efficient pricing.

The party commissioned a report from an environmentalist planning firm called Eco-Logica that claimed London wide charging could raise £1.4 billion (US$2.23 billion) which would be used to cut public transport fares.   Of course that would likely be opposed by most motorists, and would risk dramatically increase demand for public transport that would mean severe overcrowding if fare reductions don't get matched by capacity increases (difficult to do quickly other than for buses).   A simple objective of using road pricing to raise revenue and deter road use, much wider than targeting congestion.  She said on the BBC last weekend, the proposed charge would be a London wide distance charge averaging 32p (US$0.51) per mile, described as a "smart pay as you drive scheme".  She also said it would replace the current congestion charge.

Clearly, the intention here is to reduce overall traffic levels, increase public transport, cycling and walking mode shares and achieve a quantum reduction in the use of the road network.  Given much transport policy has had similar such objectives for some time, this is not quite as radical as some may think.  However, it is political dynamite for motorists, and small business owners who may use cars or light commercial vehicles frequently.  Still, it is not wrong to think that such an idea, if it did at least in part offset other taxes, might achieve a lot for London in reducing congestion and the environmental impacts of road use.  Using it just to raise more taxes and reduce externalities is, of course, a understandably left wing view of road pricing.

UPDATE: The debate on local radio station, LBC, last night had Jenny say she would increase the charge to £15, with up to £40 for larger vehicles

Conclusion: Courageous, logical from the Green "world view", but punishing to car owners, and the light commercial delivery and freight sectors.  However, it may come into its own in 10-20 years time, although perhaps to replace other taxes rather than simply be a new one.

Carlos Cortiglia - British National Party

Carlos has been hitherto unknown, his views on the congestion charge are equally so.  Given he represents a party that is considered to be nationalist, with socialist economic policies, it is unlikely road pricing is on his radar.   A repeated search has found no policy on his blog or the BNP website.

UPDATE:  Carlos wants to abolish the congestion charge.

Conclusion: Clear and simple and populist

Lawrence Webb - UK Independent Party

Lawrence has also been unknown.  However, he does have policies. The Low Emission Zone, which is often ignored, but which essentially charges any vehicles over 3.5 tonnes and some light commercial vehicles that don't meet minimal emission standards, would not have tightened standards.  He says he would "scrap the congestion charge cameras", which is, in effect, to scrap the congestion charge.  I don't know if he thinks he can replace it with other technology, but he does suggest using the cameras to enforce mandatory third party insurance and vehicle excise duty.

UKIP sometimes portrays itself as a party of smaller government and in favour of business and growth, so it is interesting (although not surprising) that it is rejecting the economic rationalist view of road pricing, in favour of populism.   Lawrence is the only candidate clearly opposing road pricing.

Conclusion: The only candidate opposing the congestion charge, albeit with no policy justification for the stance.  Given he is now polling at levels rivalling Jenny Jones, could it mean that London ends up being balanced between opponents of charging, and advocates of more charging?

Siobhan Benita - Independent

Siobhan is a newcomer as well, although she admitted on the BBC that she previously supported Ken.  Her website says she wont change the area covered by the congestion charge, but nothing else. Fair to presume she joins the two main candidates in supporting no change to the status quo.

Conclusion: Nothing radical here either, status quo.

Overall conclusion

It is apparent that politics around London's congestion charge have matured somewhat.  One candidate is  campaigning to get rid of it, and he is unlikely to win.  Both major candidates are campaigning on little real change to the current scheme.  One candidate is pushing for radical expansion, but she is unlikely to win either.   In short, London's congestion charge is now accepted as an integral part of London's traffic management system.  It is fair to say that expansion is not politically tenable at present, because there is little appetite to make people pay more, but similarly the value of the existing scheme is now not doubted.


It is important to note the election is also for the London Assembly, which has some powers as well.  That involves electing representatives in constituencies and voting for parties, so there is some proportionality.  It is here that the smaller parties, like the Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP and BNP can get elected. What may be more influential is if the Green Party does well and gets more representation, given its radical view of the charge.  It is likely to do well from voters disenchanted with the Liberal Democrats and Labour, whereas UKIP's opposition may attract some traditional Conservative voters.  The London Assembly can't stop the Mayor, but can slow him/her down.

If it does end up being one of the two main candidates that get elected, expect little change in the next four years for the congestion charge or road pricing in London.  There are quite a lot of transport policy issues in this election, ranging from policies on public transport fares, support for minor investments in road improvements, automating the Underground and future airport expansion (or not).   These all are likely to influence how Londoners vote.   It would appear that the congestion charge is not really one of those issues anymore.

Given the politics and profile around its introduction, that is quite remarkable.  The congestion charge is part of London life and accepted as mainstream policy.

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