An idea for the new mayor: pay-as-you-go roads

The new mayor, whoever they are, should start charging drivers based on how much they drive, not sim

London is an increasingly congested city, and with the population expected to continue to grow by as much as 2 million over the next twenty years, congestion is only likely to get worse, with negative consequences for liveability, air quality, carbon emissions, and economic competitiveness.

One policy however could make a substantial contribution to reducing congestion on London’s roads: pay-as-you-go congestion charging (road pricing). Though the case for congestion charging has been more popular on the left than the right, it is founded on good market principles – one of the first people to argue for it was the Chicago-school economist Milton Friedman. Road pricing is simply an economically efficient way of allocating an increasingly scarce resource (road space). For that reason, the theoretical case for road pricing is now accepted by most economists and the policy is supported by a wide array of business organisations.

Smart technologies are making road pricing ever less costly. And it should not be difficult to design a scheme for London which actually reduces the costs of using a car for some car owners – those that use a car infrequently, or on non-congested roads.  

One simple idea might be for the Mayor to refund to all car owners the cost of their annual vehicle tax, while introducing road pricing at the same time, perhaps paid for via the Oyster Card. Those that make little use of their cars could well find themselves better of at the end of the year than currently.

Similarly, discounts could be offered on less polluting, greener vehicles. Integrating congestion charging with the Oyster Card would allow people to make a direct calculation as to the costs and benefits of using the car versus other means of transport. Indeed, the mayor could go futher, promoting a London travel card (or a London travel account – cards could soon be superceded by smart phone accounts) for use on public transport, private cars, car clubs and even cabs and taxis.

The principle that we should pay more to travel at busier than quiet times, or more popular than less popular routes is already well established - notably on the railways. While the Congestion Zone covers less than 2 per cent of London's roads, it has been widely accepted, and demonstrated that road charging can be effective. And while congestion charging schemes have been rejected in referendums held in Edinburgh and Manchester they have passed the test of public opinion in other cities like Stockholm. The key seems to be to introduce the scheme first and once it is established and it has been tried and tested by the public, only then hold a vote on whether to remove it.

A Taxi enters the congestion charging zone. Photograph: Getty Images

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London think tank, and the author of 10 Ideas for the New Mayor.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.