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18 December 2021updated 20 Dec 2021 1:34pm

What’s the point of Sadiq Khan?

The London mayor is hiking TfL fares and council tax across the capital, while making it cheaper to drive into town. Has he lost his mind?

By Jonn Elledge

Five and a half years into his time in office, I think maybe it’s time we seriously consider the possibility Sadiq Khan is not actually a very good mayor.

That’s not to say he hasn’t been royally screwed over by this government and its forever war-y approach to local government. You know the sort of thing: openly directing money to areas that vote Tory, denying it to those which don’t, refusing to expand the popular and successful London Overground to any more of the capital’s national rail network for no other reason than that it would mean handing more power to a Labour mayor. The crisis currently engulfing Transport for London (TfL), which has literally no clue how it’s meant to be funding itself this time next week, is merely the latest iteration of this pattern.

Nor is it to say that Khan deserves even a fraction of the abuse he gets for being, variously, liberal, Asian, a member of the Labour party, or, most of all, a Muslim. Khan’s achievements in his five years as mayor may be modest. Spending five minutes reading the replies to anything he ever posts on social media, though, is enough to make one marvel he can still get out of bed in the morning.

Yet his achievements are modest, all the same: the night tube scheme; the bus hopper fare, which makes it possible to switch buses without paying twice (something you can already do on the tube, meaning that the status quo ante had the perverse effect of punishing Londoners for being poor); a six-fold increase in the number of council homes being built, which is laudable, but which has still not made even the merest fraction of a dent in the capital’s housing situation because of the sheer scale of the problem.

And then, just occasionally, Khan has done something completely and utterly baffling.

A case in point. TfL, as mentioned above, is in a mess. For the last few years, thanks to a deal cooked up between then chancellor George Osborne and then London mayor Boris Johnson back in 2015, the majority of the transport agency’s funds has come through fares: around 72 per cent of the lot, compared to just 38 per cent in New York or Paris. If you’ve been awake at any point since March 2020, you can probably guess why this has become a problem.

To keep the city moving, the Treasury has to date been forced to give TfL three bailouts – not, it’s worth stressing, because of any mistake made by Sadiq Khan himself – but each time it has waited until the last possible moment. On this occasion, it has been more negligent still: the last bailout package was originally due to expire on 11 December, but was extended by a single week, apparently to give Transport Secretary Grant Shapps time to consider TfL’s proposals but also, let’s be honest, to turn the screws. On Friday (17 December), he extended it again, this time until 4 February.

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On Wednesday 15 December Khan was forced to show willing by unveiling a swingeing set of tax and fare rises. The package includes three years’ of council tax rises, by an average of £20 per household per year; a fare hike of RPI+1 per cent; a gradual increase in the age at which Londoners qualify for free travel, from 60 to 66 over a dozen years; and the end of the extremely long-standing Travelcard scheme, which allows those travelling from National Rail stations unlimited travel on the tube and buses for a set fee.

This is all depressing, but it is at least understandably depressing. The bit that makes me doubt whether Khan is quite as good as this politics lark as we’d hoped is that, on Thursday 16 December, Khan also announced changes intended to make driving into central London cheaper. The £15 congestion charge, which since June 2020 has applied between 7am and 10pm, will be cut back to 6pm from 21 February, which by all the laws of economics means you’d expect more people to drive. It also won’t apply at all between Christmas Day and 3 January, the longest festive break on record.

This, remember, is happening at a time of fare increases and council tax rises. At a point when every household in London is looking at an increased council tax bill, those who fancy driving into the West End of an evening – a thing which no sane Londoner has ever done – will be able to do it for free. The move is expected to cost TfL around £60-70m a year.

It is possible, at least, that this is being done under duress. But Khan, who has not been shy of criticising the government for the position it has put TfL in, has shown little sign he’s upset about this particular change.

And so, I think we have to take it on face value that the mayor genuinely believes that making it easier to drive into central London, while raising both council tax and tube fares, is the best way of supporting London’s economy right now. Even though we should be reducing car usage; even though more inner Londoners now cycle rather than drive to work; even though “making it easier to drive into Soho for dinner” is not going to make a difference to the West End’s economy in the middle of a global pandemic; even though this is, anyway, a thing that nobody in their right mind would ever, ever do.

Sadiq Khan has been given a tough hand by a Tory government that seems determined to punish him for winning. But if this is what he does when the chips are down then, really, what’s he for?

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