London Special - Congestion

The capital has led the way on road pricing with the congestion charge and, despite the doomsayers,

The 1.8 million signatures on the recent road pricing petition is the least of the problems facing supporters of the concept. The plan to introduce a workable pay-as-you-drive scheme is pitted with so many potholes that it is difficult to see how politicians will ever manage to drive it through and implement anything like a comprehensive national system.

And I say "a" rather than "the" system, because there is no model, let alone a detailed scheme for it. That besides, the petition was a thoroughly dishonest exercise and was based on an email campaign which suggested that a very precise plan set a tariff of £1.30 per mile, with the additional cost of the "tag" - the GPS equipment on board that calculates the distance travelled - to be £200.

The ideas for road pricing that have been floated are various, but we are years away from any decision on charging rates or how the tags would be paid for. Given that no scheme exists, the petition was really an exercise in enlisting people who are against paying a supposedly new tax - and a man with more courage than Tony Blair would have said so.

There is no worked-out model because a national system would look very different from the only large-scale scheme currently in operation: London's congestion charge. London is exceptional for many reasons, not least the excellence of its public transport, with 12 Tube lines and 700 bus routes and a low rate of car usage. Since it came into operation in 2003 the initial congestion charge has, indeed, been a success in reducing traffic by 20 per cent, even though, at a cost of £161.7m, it has been expensive to introduce.

The western extension, controversially introduced last month to double the congestion charge's catchment area, has shakier foundations and may prove damaging to perceptions of the scheme's success.

It takes in an area that is largely residential - few people travel to work there - and the decision to allow residents a 90 per cent discount to drive in the whole area gave the affluent residents of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea leave to enter the original charging area for less than they were paying before. That the good burghers of Kensington held protests at their town hall suggests the relationship between brains and wealth is as tenuous as ever, even in these meritocratic times - a case of turkeys failing to support the abolition of Christmas.

The most telling phrase in Tony Blair's answer to the online petitioners was that "it would be ten years or more before any national scheme was technologically, never mind politically, feasible". 'Twas ever thus. Road pricing has always been ten years off. In 1993 the then transport secretary, John MacGregor, voiced commitment to introduce a scheme within a decade. Labour ministers have been saying the same thing for the past few years, seemingly unaware of the passage of time.

Blair is technologically illiterate and his response is dishonest. The technology to introduce a national scheme is available and already being used in Germany, where all lorries are charged to use the motorways. Nine out of ten pay through a sophisticated tagging system with an on-board unit that uses the US satellite system Toll Collect to calculate distance travelled. Operated by T-Systems, a subsidiary of T-Mobile, Toll Collect is 99 per cent accurate, and has been shown to function properly even in urban areas where there were concerns that tall buildings would cause black spots.

Lorry lobby

In Britain, a similar system was planned to assuage complaints by the road haulage industry that foreign lorries were getting a free ride on our motorways. However, in 2005, Alistair Darling, the then transport secretary, abruptly cancelled the proposed lorry road charging scheme, arguing that it would get in the way of the national scheme being proposed for all motorists - which, of course, he said would be ten years down the line.

This explanation does not hold water. The lorry scheme would have been an incredibly useful trial run for the wider implementation of the system. Instead it revealed political cowardice from a minister who had been sent to the Department for Transport to keep the ministry out of the headlines following the negative coverage that his immediate pre decessor, Stephen Byers, had managed to produce.

Despite making the scheme acceptable to hauliers by promising it would replace existing forms of taxation, and therefore be revenue-neutral, Darling was simply too scared of potential resistance from hauliers, a group that has terrified government ministers since the fuel protests of 2000, which almost brought the country to a standstill. This was a lost opportunity to soften up public opinion and sort out the technology.

This episode demonstrates that the biggest obstacle in implementing a national road pri-cing scheme is political, not technical. And it leads to the crucial question: What would be the purpose of a national road charging scheme? For a while ministers, ever fearful of the Jeremy Clarkson brigade, seemed to imply that it would be revenue-neutral, simply replacing fuel tax and vehicle excise duty.

That did not make sense at the time and makes even less now. The enormous costs and the political capital needed to introduce a national road pricing scheme would be disproportionate if its aim were simply to reduce congestion a tad on a few overcrowded roads. The sole rationale for imposing such an expensive and far-reaching measure would be to reduce the environmental damage caused by cars and induce a shift to other, greener, forms of transport.

Lack of political will

Here, however, there appears to be further trouble ahead as the incoherence of wider government transport policy is horribly exposed. At present, rail fares are being allowed to rise by 1 per cent above inflation. For the buses, too, fare increases above inflation in the deregulated and privatised sector are the norm. But Britain has in the past invested far less of its GDP in transport infrastructure than other comparable European economies - with the result that people induced out of their cars by the stick of heavy taxation have few carrots of nice, shiny trains or fleets of state-of-the-art buses with which to console themselves.

Aware of this, ministers tried to offload the political risk of implementing the scheme on to local authorities, offering generous bribes in the form of a Transport Infrastructure Fund that comes in two parts: the first to fund feasibility studies and the second for the implementation of schemes. Local authorities in large conurbations such as Manchester and Birmingham came back saying: "Give us lots of money to pay for better public transport, and then we will im plement road pricing." Even those areas which have been allocated money for feasibility studies, such as Norfolk, are worried about actually spending the money because of fears of a hostile local response.

Given such a reaction on the ground, and the ease with which motorists' fear of extra taxation can be roused by public campaigns, road pricing in Britain is likely to be mired in endless discussion, documents and feasibility studies for far longer than a decade.

A national scheme would require great courage and conviction, and there are few signs of either from the Department for Transport. Without that, and, more importantly, without strong political leadership, a scheme that could reduce congestion and reduce carbon emissions will forever remain "ten years away".

Christian Wolmar's book on the history of the railways, "Fire and Steam", will be published by Atlantic Books in September (priced £19.99)

Road pricing facts and figures

1.8 million people signed e-petition against road pricing
33 million cars currently on UK roads
25% increase in congestion predicted by 2015
£22bn value of time wasted in England due to congestion by 2025
£62bn set-up cost of road pricing scheme
£8bn to administer scheme every year
£1.50 per mile toll planned for busiest roads during rush hour
21% of UK carbon emissions come from road traffic
£140bn investment on public transport by 2015
£28bn annual benefit to the UK economy
Research by Mosarrof Hussain

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016. 

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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