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 Indeed, the mayor could go futher, promoting a London travel card (or a London travel account – cards could soon be superceded by smart phone accounts) for use on public transport, private cars, car clubs and even cabs and taxis.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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496