Sadiq Khan could soon pave the way for a new Labour tax grab (2024)

It started with the UK’s first parking meter, installed in Mayfair in 1958, followed by the first bus lane on Vauxhall Bridge in 1968. Then, of course, came Ken Livingstone’s congestion charge, first introduced in 2003. More recently, motorists have been introduced to the joys of the Ulez low-emission charge, imposed in 2019.

London has been clamping down on drivers for more than half a century, with City Hall often leading the world with fiendishly clever new ways of making driving from one place to another more difficult. With his potential plans for pay-per-mile road charges, London Mayor Sadiq Khan may soon finish the job. By the end of his third term, if he is re-elected, motorists have given up on the capital. What anti-car zealots fail to have appreciated, however, is that the Mayor’s ideologically driven crusade will make London a near-impossible place to live or work.

Sadiq Khan was quick to deny that he has any plans for road pricing. Yet it was reported at the weekend that he has legally committed himself to studying plans for pay-per-mile charging to be introduced in the capital. After all, the network of cameras is already in place.

It may take little more than a ramped up “climate emergency” for this latest measure to impose more misery on exasperated motorists. We will hear all the same old arguments rehashed. It will reduce congestion. It will help pay for better public transport. It will be “fairer”. It will help to bring down the levels of pollution.

And once a pay-per-mile road charge has been introduced in the capital, what is to stop other local authorities from following suit? Bath, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Portsmouth, Sheffield, and Tyneside all now have “clean air zones”, with certain vehicles subject to daily levies. London’s road charge could pave the way for a national scheme, brought in under the premise of lowering pollution, but having the practical effect of slowly driving us off the roads.

Last spring, Keir Starmer pledged to freeze council tax for a year. But his Party will have to raise a few billion from somewhere to fund its various commitments, and motorists are an easy target, especially if imposing new levies can be dressed up as part of meeting our Net Zero commitments. Before long, we may all be paying a few pounds every time we get in the car.

There are major problems with driving motorists out of London, at least with current methods. First, despite all the marketing, there is little evidence to suggest congestion has been eased.

Average traffic speeds are now lower than before the first congestion charge was introduced (a hair-raising 9.5 miles an hour at the morning peak in 2021 compared with 10 miles per hour in 1997). We still sit in just as much traffic, except now we have to pay for the privilege.

Next, it has made London virtually uninhabitable for families. The tube and bus network can be quick and convenient for solo travellers. Less so for those who have just finished the weekly shop with three under-fives in tow.

Third, it may have worsened inequality, driving a wedge between the super-rich, who can afford the fines, and everyone else. The pay-per-mile charge will hit anyone of a middling income hard, especially if they are dependent on a car to
get around.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it will punish businesses. Tradesmen and builders have to use their vans to get to a job. Shops need deliveries that come in by truck. And the nightlife, essential in any vibrant capital city, depends on staff being able to get home in the small hours, and that can often means a car or a taxi. There are already worrying signs of a steep decline in London’s night-time economy, as energy and rent costs rise, while Gen Z turn against alcohol. For many small businesses, road charges will be the final nail in the coffin.

Most people would agree that congestion needs to be reduced. But there are far simpler ways of doing it, ones which don’t involve carving up London’s major arteries to install even wider bike lanes, or imposing “low traffic neighbourhoods” where they aren’t needed. We could, for instance, finally repair Hammersmith Bridge.

But forcing cars off London’s roads, as motorists wearily decide the costs aren’t worth it, will damage businesses and make the city needlessly difficult to live in. The Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election was a warning sign to politicians who impose hardships on our daily lives. They ought to heed it.

Sadiq Khan could soon pave the way for a new Labour tax grab (2024)
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