Mayor’s budget – transport fares up by 6%

In the third of our Mayor’s budget articles John Biggs, Deputy Leader of the Labour group on the London Assembly, attacks Boris Johnson’s “do nothing budget” and says recent fare increases will cancel out the Mayor’s freezing of the GLA precept.

Boris Johnson’s decision not to raise the Greater London Authority’s share of council tax with one hand should not mask his cruel attack on working Londoners with the other – above inflation fare rises.

In many ways this was a traditional Tory, do nothing budget, with smallish cuts here and there. And with a profound lack of vision – after almost a year in office he has not painted a picture of how he wants London to look in 2012, at the end of his term.

With the country already in recession and London in danger of faring worse than most, this should have been the time for the Mayor to come up with radical solutions to see the capital through. Instead, Boris Johnson’s budget consists of little more than minor efficiency savings, the deletion of vacant posts, and cuts to areas deemed less than important to his administration. The budget of the GLA’s environment team has been slashed by half a million pounds; the domestic violence team by £90,000. The money Boris Johnson allocated to fund four rape crisis centres during his campaign has now been halved.

With one-off savings found for this year and the axe wielded over non-priority areas, the Mayor has found enough slack to achieve a headline-grabbing freeze in the GLA precept increase. As he is fond of telling the Assembly, the GLA will not go to the London council taxpayer asking for an increased contribution this year, saving the average household around £40 a year.

However, at the same time, the Mayor announced that public transport fares are to go up by an average of 6% (and some by an eye-watering 11%). This will add to working Londoners’ bills by anything from £160 – £300, immediately cancelling out and then some any council tax savings. In my view, it is simply dishonest of the Mayor to claim he is saving Londoners money. Holding down tax with one hand and snatching increased fares with the other does not represent a good deal for working Londoners.

The real meat, though, will come in the Mayor’s future budgets. While he has down-sized departments and found one-off savings this year, the Mayor will find it extremely challenging to hold down the GLA precept in future years without severe pressure on front-line policing numbers. Boris Johnson’s number two, Kit Malthouse, has already told us to expect fewer or static numbers of police officers.

Without small and reasonable increases to the GLA’s share of the council tax under the previous Mayor, London would not have record numbers of police on the streets. The Tories on the Assembly consistently voted against these increases, which, I would argue, helped secure Londoners safety and security.

Now we have a Tory Mayor who appears happy to bank the investments of the last eight years but has yet to come up with his own offer to Londoners, other than a temporary council tax reprieve. Whether it is record numbers of police, the bus revolution or transport infrastructure – at the heart of the Boris Johnson mayoralty is a vacuous, empty vessel with no vision for where the capital should head.

Boris Johnson’s do-nothing budget, his lack of a plan for allaying the affects of the capital’s recession and his decision to raise fares above inflation do not augur well for London’s future. But the real test will come in the next few years. Will the Mayor find his voice, articulate his vision for London and begin to show some real leadership? If not, and if this year’s budget was a sign of the things to come, there is a real danger that by 2012 our city will not only have come to a standstill but will have moved in to reverse.

Taken in isolation, a council tax freeze is to be welcomed in difficult economic times. But looking to the future, and to how London will emerge from the recession, Londoners will expect more than a headline grabbing tightening of belts.