Much of the 2012 mayoral contest was fought on the issue of fares, with three of City Hall’s four parties promising to slash the cost of your trip to work while Boris, rare for a frontline politician, defended pushing up fares on the grounds that doing so had delivered “unprecedented” levels of investment which made your journey more reliable and pleasant.
The cuts promised by his opponents, so he argued, threatened that investment, making it harder for the capital to cope as its population continued to soar.
As I told the BBC during the last mayoral election, fares and fares cuts are “effectively a form of shorthand – telling voters ‘I’m on your side’ in much the same way Westminster parties use income tax”.
The first of the 2016 big beasts to promise a fares cut was Boris’s policing deputy Stephen Greenhalgh who has vowed to slash them by 3% each year.
As in 2012 when they partnered with Boris to warn of the risks Ken Livingstone’s fares cuts, Transport for London were quick to brief that Greenhalgh’s pledge “would inevitably result in cuts to current plans to improve and expand London’s transport network.”
The sight of spokespeople for one part of the Mayor’s empire attacking the frontman of another caused some raised eyebrows.
But some at City Hall suggest the intervention may have been encouraged, or at least not actively discouraged, by the incumbent who was said to be annoyed at Greenhalgh for legitimising opposition parties’ claims that he’d allowed public transport to become unaffordable.
Undeterred, Greenhalgh insists there’s sufficient wasteful spending within the transport agency to enable him to make good on his promises without condemning commuters to troublesome signals, old trains and rickety buses.
Not to be outdone, Labour’s would-be mayors have been busy promising cuts of their own.
So widespread is the promise of a one-hour bus ticket that there’s been a bit of spat between some of the contenders who’ve been busy accusing one another of nicking the policy from them.
All seem oblivious that Liberal Democrats on the London Assembly have been pushing the idea for much of the past decade, and none seem to have identified a specific pot of cash from which they’d cover the £50m per year which TfL and Boris claim it would cost in lost revenue.
If swapping buses without paying doesn’t excite, Diane Abbott and Sadiq Khan have suggested fares could be frozen for the entire 2016-2020 mayoral term while Tessa Jowell has pledged a flat-rate weekend travelcard.
Again, funding for such policies seems a little vague and it appears that the waste Greenhalgh thinks he can clampdown on plays a big part in delivering his opponents’ pledges too.
As I’ve chronicled over the years, expenses claimed by their boss class, lavish taxpayer funded meals and hideously poor value mobile contracts demonstrate there is fat to be trimmed, but is it really enough to replace hundreds of millions of pounds of lost fares revenue?
To his credit, Labour hopeful Gareth Thomas has identified how he’ll fund his pledge to cut “Tube, rail and bus fares by 10% in the first year if I became Mayor, and freeze them for the remaining three years.”
Unlike his vaguer compatriots, Thomas says he’ll make “hard choices” and cutt back TfL’s upgrades programme to compensate for the “£2.63bn over the four years” cost of his pledge.
Thomas deserves recognition for being open and honest enough to tell voters long before the election that they can have fare cuts, or neo-Victorian levels of investment, but not both.
However, his rhetoric does appear slightly contradictory. On June 10th he highlighted “investment in [transport] infrastructure as being crucial to create the decent jobs of the future, and help us tackle poverty in London”
Yet just a couple of days later he wrote an article for LabourList in which he said some of the infrastructure investment needed to create these “crucial” jobs would need to be sacrificed in order to fund his fares cuts.
And his willingness to sacrifice £2.63bn from the fares box would seem to be at odds with his desire to see TfL less reliant on government grant and handout.
In his LabourList article, Thomas says “much of TfL’s income still comes direct from the Treasury,” and adds that “Londoners should be able to control their own destiny, making their own choices about the subsidy TfL receives.”
Yet, as this infographic published by TfL at the urging of Assembly Member Darren Johnson shows, fares revenue makes up 40% of TfL’s entire annual income and is by far the single biggest pot of cash at its disposal.
Thomas is right to row in behind those of us who’ve long wanted London to control more of its services and keep more of its cash, but promising to make TfL more reliant on Government handout, which is almost certain to shrink in coming years, isn’t a credible way of achieving that.