Boris gets off the bus

As a bold act of redistribution it is hard to beat. Oh, hang on . . .

Boris Johnson will see out New Year's Eve 2009 convinced that he has made it as cheap as possible. London's official fireworks display, which under the "profligate" Ken Livingstone regime lasted ten whole minutes, will be reduced to a mere seven and a half minutes.

Free rail travel will be scrapped, and Boris will enter 2010 having scrimped several hundred thousand pounds off the mayor's budget.

This is all part of Boris's drive to "ease the burden" of City Hall on taxpayers. However, as Boris counts his pennies, the rest of the capital will wake to the largest set of multimillion-pound fare rises brought in by a London mayor.

Boris will increase single bus fares by 20 per cent, with "hard-pressed families" paying hundreds of pounds more a year. And while the average household has saved just 11p a week from Boris's tax freeze, Boris will take hundreds of millions of pounds extra in fare revenue during his term.

These rises will help close the financial black hole created by the removal of the western extension of the congestion charge, but will also go towards much-needed improvements to the Underground. They will also help fund initiatives such as his bike hire scheme.

But while some of the extra burden may be necessary, it is how Boris has chosen to share the burden that is most revealing.

Boris will protect those Londoners most able to pay by freezing the price of almost all season tickets for the year. Meanwhile, he will raise single bus fares by a third from the level he inherited. Overall, bus users will be hit hardest by the rises.

As a bold act of redistribution, it is hard to beat, with Boris asking those least able to pay to subsidise those most able to pay.

This is reportedly a worry for the Conservative leadership: David Cameron's aides are quoted as saying that Boris is "making us look bad". But although Cameron is keen not to scare off voters before an election, Boris is merely doing what most Conservatives would have expected him to do once in power.

Ken Livingstone famously had a policy of shifting people out of their own vehicles and on to public transport. For a self-proclaimed cycle- and car-loving libertarian, this was always going to be anathema.

To shift the balance, Boris plans to raise fares, halve the size of the congestion charge zone, reduce the level of bus subsidy and pour millions into making London the "electric car capital of the world".

Whether masses of Londoners will ever follow Boris's electric dreams remains to be seen.

But while the mayor can easily afford to take part in his "electric car revolution", for most Londoners the real revolution will be an ever-increasing burden from Boris in fares.

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the mayoralty.

 

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Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.