Former London Assembly Member Damian Hockney reckons that the announcement about the scrapping of the Western Extension in London helps the Yes campaign in Manchester (results due later this week). Hockney also believes that the Mayor’s move has actually rescued the London scheme, and may even have given a boost to campaigners to introduce it elsewhere. An opponent of the charge as conceived, he explains why the Mayor may have given it the kiss of life, and offers a few interesting insights into the impact of London’s experience on the plans of other cities on the eve of the knife edge vote in Manchester…
Ex-Mayor Livingstone and Oscar Wilde didn’t often come to mind at the same time, but I remember where I was when they did. As you always do at key moments. The poet/playright’s phrase “…each man kills the thing he loves…” sprang into my head when I was sat in the Assembly Chamber the day the Mayor almost casually announced that owners of big and naughty cars would soon have to pay £25 a day Congestion Charge, with no residents’ discount. It was like the lead-up in the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest scoring when you suddenly realised that the bloke singing for Norway might actually score Nul points. You didn’t want it to happen to the poor sap, you didn’t mind the song, and had nothing against Norway (they had the sense to stay out of the old Common Market), but at the same time you were intrigued at the occasion and shamefully willed it on.
Thus it was in February 2008. As an opponent of the C Charge, I nevertheless kind of half wanted the Mayor to announce £1,000 a day, £2,000 a day C Charge, the sacking of Park Lane, burning of Mercs, Jags and Porsches on pyres on the Thames, and summary executions at the border of the C Charge. Because you knew that the consequence for the C Charge of the £25 charge would be so grave anyway that he might just as well do the deed with panache. To complete that Oscar Wilde quote on killing the thing you love…”the coward does it with a kiss, the brave man with a sword”…
And of course the interesting and almost untold story of the years after the 60% price increase of the C Charge in 2005 is an exercise in how the very sound concept of questioning of how we pay for our roads can turn into a cul de sac of modern politics, moralities, taxation and spin. And how after that date, the developments damaged the very essence of the idea upon which such a charge must be built if it is to have credibility – how do we pay for our roads and how fair do the schemes appear?
One of the things which worried me most about the C Charge from the beginning was what I can only describe as an unpleasant aspect of it, the whiff of moralism, the way in which it was almost designed to tell you you were bad and immoral, to cow you into thinking you must allow the politicians even greater access to your wallet. Some years earlier, I had discussed road pricing with free market adviser Sir Alan Walters on a train when I stood for election in 1997. He had worked on the first London road pricing plan in the early 1960s and a lot of what he said seemed very sensible. But the implementation of the C Charge in London appeared to neglect the clean and clear market-led approach in favour of a kind of truculent hostility to classes and groups of people, which ignored some realities about business and movement. This however was balanced in the original zone by a parallel feeling that something had to be done about the traffic and relief that the implementation hadn’t gone pear shaped. Most people did indeed accept the original scheme on that ‘something must be done’ basis, and rationing the roads for the rich or better off is indeed one way of doing it. So until 2005, an opponent of the scheme like myself acknowledges reluctantly that a settled will on the C Charge appeared quite quickly which was warily supportive (with operational reservations).
But it did go wrong in 2005, and it started with the 60% increase in price.
When I went to New York to discuss the London C Charge with a group of representatives in one of the Assemblies there, at the time of their own debate on whether to agree to a Congestion Charge a year or so later, they were amazed to hear about:
- the 60% increase in price with little consultation
- the failure to take into account impact on business and the refusal to undertake serious investigation in the light of the significant drop in the number of VAT registered businesses in the C Charge zone (and the big rise in the area just outside) in the first two years of the C Charge.
- the rigid failure to deal with downturns like the July bombings
- the charging and fining of emergency vehicles during the bombings
- the method of fining and excess charging even if you paid late on the same day which so damaged the system in the eyes of occasional users
- the fact that the profit appeared to depend upon fining, with confusion and fine timings making it doubly difficult for occasional users
- the decision to extend the zone to areas where there was little settled will about the need for some such a mechanism
- the sudden plan to penalise certain groups of car drivers by huge extra taxation – ‘brilliantly’ timed to annoy every other advocate of the charge in other cities
- the failure of transparency over profit or loss of the scheme
- the failure to really come up with a way of meshing the charge and the growing night time economy
And above all? The failure of London to respond properly to questions about these issues, other than to primly repeat mantras, and dogmas, and to use spin and statistics which were open to very different interpretations. An extraordinary introverted parochial way of handling an issue where London led the way. Whether you liked it or not.
There was no need to put a political spin on anything – all I needed to do was run films of extracts from meetings and hand out the london.gov.uk press releases.
It’s not too much to say that the failures of the first 5 years of the London C Charge (particularly the two years 2005-2007) had a major impact on the ability to deliver elsewhere, including crucially Edinburgh and New York. There was a strange parochial blinkered view of this in the capital, as if London were the only place on earth. But as someone who spoke at meetings in both New York and Edinburgh, I can say that the unpleasant and venal nature of aspects of the charge, allied to ideas about singling out certain drivers and politically attacking them for ownership of certain cars through this mechanism, set back the genuine cause of the need to identify how we pay for road use and created a feeling that it was all simply about screwing money out of motorists. Moneys of course in addition to other taxes. And then taking moral stands through taxation. And if you look at comment in Manchester you will see that London looms large in the background of the argument there as well.
Even mild supporters of the charge, or neutrals, which included most of my acquaintances and friends, began to become hostile (or uneasy) in late 2005. These were people who I could not initially persuade that the introduction of the charge was a mistake and wrong and might lead to invasive morally-led tax burdens.
I showed a group of New York politicians the film of a meeting in which I had appealed to the Mayor and Assembly for C Charge latitude in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. Business at inner London attractions had collapsed (on average about 60% ) and everyone wanted to attract families from the South East back into the tourist fold. These visitors were simply not coming in, because of the bombings and the coincidental 60% rise in C Charge, and they were vital for places like the London Dungeon…South East visitors were put off by the C Charge (all sorts of aspects of it, not just the £8). There was something really apparent from the film of the meeting – it was the fact that C Charge supporters would not budge because they felt that it would be admitting something if they took such action. From my positive “look, relaxing a tax in tough times proves the system is human and helps to revive trade”, it was turned into “concessions will force us to admit that the charge has an impact on business”.
The New York politicians picked up on this in a way that the media and others did not in the UK. They realised that they were about to unleash something rather unpleasant, with a life of its own, a revenue driven crusade which could be turned against certain groups in society and a fast moving train which it might be difficult to get off. The New York response to the London experience via meetings, huge internet discussions etc, was given almost no coverage in the UK, and neither were the fascinating backroom discussions of Albany politicians, all available through briefings but not taken up by any of the United Kingdom media – almost no coverage was given to the impact of those recent developments in London upon the New York campaign and upon the politicians, developments which were played out to millions of voters and citizens. The only coverage was of Mayor Bloomberg coming to London to find out ‘how it was done’ in media coverage reminiscent of the old Pathe News. Too late Ethel, as the song had it, the people (and opponents) already knew ‘how it was done’, and they feared they were about to be done as well. It is no exaggeration to say that had London behaved even slightly better between 2005 and 2007, New York would have taken easily to the C Charge – specially with the millions of dollars in bribes being offered.
So step forward the new Mayor, and his approach to the C Charge.
Many of those who voted for Boris Johnson did so feeling that he would scrap the Western Extension. Indeed, the consultations on this part of the scheme by both the Mayor and his predecessor show some remarkable similarities, so it is fair to say that the scheme was extended with little popular mandate at a difficult time for yet more taxation. There is no settled will among the voters there to keep it, even for someone like myself who can currently drive around in the whole zone rather than having to pay on entry around Peter Jones in Sloane Square as I used to. People like me will have to go back to paying every time we want to drive through the West End – tinkering by the new Mayor would simply lead to both a backlash and the opportunity to essentially leave it unchanged when it is not really what people want. Politicians making adjustments to unpopular regulations usually do not want to do anything and are indulging in cosmetics for electoral purposes (trying to pretend to both sides of an argument).
And this is the point. Had the previous Mayor remained in place, however genuine and honourable the intentions regarding the C Charge might have been, the zeal would have killed it for Manchester and other places about to decide. If, as I still hope, Manchester says No by a small majority this week, it is nothing to what would have happened if the £25 charge had gone through, and the zealots had refused to even consider changes in light of the current recession. But the knowledge now that it can be altered quite radically, that someone will listen when it (like any tax) hurts and not treat it as some sort of sacred cow…all these things have an impact on perceptions. It might swing it for Manchester.
London was the first major city to have such a scheme, and it was hopelessly inward looking to think that others would not be looking. They looked and we were found seriously wanting. Some looked on appalled, others through hands half covering the eyes as you watch someone about to do the I’m A Celebrity challenge involving snakes, gunk, a tank and your head.
So there’s the difference – the former Mayor tried to kill the thing he loved (albeit unintentionally) but Boris came along and made it look nice and fluffy (well, with fewer teeth and claws). If the result is Yes in Manchester, the city’s more prescient politicians will immediately invite him up to receive an award as Hero of the Campaign, and give him a rousing welcome…