Sadiq Khan's "clean air charge" plan is a greenwashing ploy while implementing cuts to London's public transport, argues Kieran Crowe
For London mayor, Sadiq Khan, transport may well be his single biggest problem, but it can hardly be disentangled from many of his other ones. London is, like many parts of the world, now being affected by climate-change-induced threats and hazards, such as heavy heat waves and sudden flash floods, which would have been almost unheard of until recently. There is also a public crisis regarding air quality, with almost all the city’s schools being in areas of high pollution, and a child of just nine years old having recently been added to the increasing lists of avoidable deaths caused by inhaling fumes. It would be a good time, then, for a policy announcement on transport. It’s just a shame about the policy.
The big idea is to start by abolishing the almost twenty-year-old Congestion Zone, in which motorists must pay a special charge to drive through inner London, and simply impose a daily charge to the entire metropolitan area. The next step, Khan says, will be then to make the charge variable depending on miles driven per day. These charges may further vary, depending on the relative fuel efficiency of the vehicle (and not applying to electric cars), but they will ultimately be ‘flat’ in the sense of not considering the ability of Londoners to pay. Khan is additionally seeking to introduce a charge for taking a non-resident car into London.
Khan’s framing of this is that it is primarily an environmental scheme to reduce car use. Transport for London (TfL) estimates that 27% fewer car journeys need to be made in the city to achieve net zero carbon targets, and this is what the mayor claims to be achieving with a system he calls ‘fair’. The response from the public is likely to be hostile. Indeed, a similar but much less drastic scheme in Manchester has already seen protests this year, but what I find most interesting is what Khan doesn’t bother to mention in relation to his policy.
Transport for London is effectively bankrupt, and there is no clear way for it to get out of the financial hole as we move from pandemic to endemic Covid-19. Formal bankruptcy was averted through a last-minute reprieve by the Tory government in December, but this was only another short-term cash injection to push the issue of TfL’s financial woes off until April. The Tories are making an ideologically motivated, and economically absurd, demand that London transport becomes entirely self-funding within a few years. This cannot be achieved with some savings here and there (that ship sailed before the pandemic); there would have to be serious reductions to the scope and scale of public transport in the city to get anywhere near it. Bus services, already subject to years of reductions, are likely to be slashed, and there has even been speculation that some of London’s iconic London Underground lines might have to close: a move that would have been utterly unthinkable even last year.
The pandemic has been a disaster for transport: slashing revenues and making more people get back into their cars. Climate-change and air quality concerns, to say nothing of getting money back into the public system, mean we need to get that trend to reverse. It’s difficult to see how that will happen, however, if the services simply aren’t up to the needs of the travelling public. Financially, Londoners can’t win either: TfL is already committed to increasing fares.
So, as was predictable, Khan’s hopelessly centrist politics have resulted in him collapsing into probably the worst position imaginable. He is carrying out an aggressive austerity policy on transport - made worse by raising flat regressive charges on people who drive as well as those on the tube, bus, and tram – and using a form of ‘greenwash’ to present himself as progressive and radical. We can be sure that this is not going to end well: it was exactly this sort of punitive approach of trying to get the public to pay for the costs of climate change, at a time when standards of living were already under threat, that led Emmanuel Macron’s government in France to have a year of strife with the ‘yellow-vest’ protesters.
I am sure that this policy could, by itself, bury Khan’s chances of winning a third term in 2024, but more worryingly, this type of eco-austerity is most likely to breed resentment against environmental measures from a lot of people, who will then be much more open to anti-green politics and ultimately the radical right. Everywhere, liberal politicians claim to care deeply about the climate, but then just perpetuate the same race to the bottom that they have done for decades. This is a major part of the backlash: people just come to see environmentalism as an elite excuse to take things away from them.
It is getting much more urgent that a real alternative be posed. There is no need for elaborate financial schemes or speculative technologies. Working-class people need to fight back against cuts to crucial services like the bus and train routes that provide the real alternative to heavy traffic in our cities.
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