Socialist Worker

Can congestion charges work?

Issue No. 1697

What do socialists say?

Can congestion charges work?

By Hassan Mahamdallie

WARNING signals about global warming "are flashing red". "The world is still proceeding at a reckless pace towards disaster." So said the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development last week. They told New Labour that its measures to cut carbon dioxide emissions from polluters such as cars were not good enough.

And Tom Blundell, chair of the royal commission on environmental pollution, said the government's target of a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide needed to be nearer 60 percent to make a difference. Most people now agree that pollution from cars is a problem.

There are over 25 million cars in Britain. Travel by car has risen tenfold in the last 40 years. Yet travel by bus has fallen by half. Transport has become a central political question since the London mayoral and assembly elections.

Ken Livingstone was elected partly because he opposes privatisation of London Underground. In contrast Tory candidate Stephen Norris used to be head of the British Transport Federation, blocking any attempt to curtail lorry traffic. The Tories would happily see posh gas-guzzling cars churned out until our roads are in complete gridlock.

But Ken Livingstone's method of reducing car use through congestion charges is flawed and unfair. His scheme would charge drivers between �5 and �10 a day to enter central London from 7am to 7pm on weekdays. Livingstone says he wants to "discourage unnecessary car journeys in a small zone of central London".

A lot of car journeys are unnecessary. An RAC survey found that use of a car was "essential" for only about a fifth of journeys. But the problem is the congestion charges would be levied at a flat rate. So the rich and the poor will be charged the same. A �10 fine means nothing to a businessman. But that fine is a fortune to a low paid worker.

Many in the City of London welcome high congestion charges (plus exemptions) for those who drive through the "square mile". They want to weed out those who have "no business" in the City and leave Threadneedle Street and Cornhill to the Jaguars, Porsches and Rolls Royces. These same rich people think nothing of parking illegally.

They hand over their parking fine for the secretary to pay out of the expense account. If they get clamped they hire a motorcycle courier to pay the fine to release the car.

Congestion charges will make the gap between rich and poor even more pronounced. They will act like a poll tax on drivers and will clog up roads around the congestion zone as drivers try to avoid paying the charge. Socialists should be in favour of rationing car use. But this should be on the basis of need.

Parents with young children and the disabled would be given priority while cars which only carry a single commuter could be banned, as already happens in urban areas in some countries. The key is providing decent public transport that serves both people and freight.

Only 6 percent of the freight market is carried by train at present. Incredibly, chancellor Gordon Brown is agreeing to increase the limit on lorry size from 40 tonnes to 44 tonnes. In the early 1980s Sheffield had a flat rate bus fare of ten pence. Buses were so widely used that the town had the lowest rate of car ownership in the country. Then bus deregulation and the council's decision to lower subsidies saw fares rise and people forced into buying cars.

When Livingstone's Greater London Council reduced bus and tube fares by an average 25 percent in 1983, passenger traffic increased 11 percent on the buses and 7 percent on the London Underground. The renationalisation of buses, combined with low fares, could drive car use down. The desire for decent public transport exists.

A recent survey showed that 78 percent of Londoners want better quality buses, rail and tube services, and 72 percent want cheaper fares. Unfortunately Livingstone has now stitched up a deal with New Labour to put the London Underground issue to a "panel of experts". The mayor has also chosen millionaire Nicky Gavron to be his deputy. She "loves congestion charges".

We need to move towards a collective and rational solution to the problems of pollution and global warming. It requires massive investment which means taxing the rich-something New Labour refuses to contemplate.

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Sat 20 May 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1697
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