London Tories are confused about the congestion charge | Dave Hill

Caught between 'overtaxed motorists' and overcrowded roads, the mayor is struggling to come up with a coherent traffic policy

He's portrayed it as a triumph for localism, liberty and a listening mayoralty, but Boris Johnson's own statistics tell a less happy story too. In the 12 weeks since the London mayor halved the size of the capital's congestion charging zone by abolishing its western extension – the WEZ – at the beginning of this year, 8% more cars drove into the relevant part of central west London than in the same period of 2010, 6% more have been circulating in the area and they've been doing it more slowly – a mixed outcome for a mayor who come to power pledging to smooth traffic flow.

His figures may underestimate the continuing impact of the ending of the WEZ, as many drivers won't have discovered until well into the new year that they can now motor into Fulham for free. The Evening Standard has reported the delight of local traders, but there's a different business angle on all this. Johnson's own transport strategy states that congestion on London's roads "costs about £2 billion in lost time," and predicts that the problem will become at least 14% worse over the next 20 years.

The Tory mayor's response to this grinding of capitalism's gears in what he calls "the engine of the UK economy" has been to tinker a bit and talk up a lot. He's introduced a scheme to better co-ordinate disruptive road works and boasts that the timings of a third of London's 6,000 sets of traffic signals have been "reviewed". He doesn't mention, though, that beneficial outcomes of these measures so far range from marginal to undetectable.

This approach to road management is not only ineffective. It is also an intellectual curiosity, one that reveals both a philosophical confusion in Conservative thinking and the failure of the party to find a coherent approach to running a big city.

Johnson has lately gorged on publicity for (quite rightly) asking President Obama to get his London embassy to cough up the £5.5m in congestion charges it has declined to pay over the years or at least to start paying the charge now in return for cancelling the historic debt. The Americans and others insist it is a local tax, from which diplomatic staff are exempt.

The problem for Johnson is that he has several times himself termed the charge a tax, including as recently as March when gratifying Tory members of the London Assembly by publicly ruling out any extension of congestion charging to outer London town centres. His assertion (page 25) that, "There are much, much better ways of controlling congestion and there are better ways of reducing pollution and you can do these without a massive stealth tax – or a blatant tax – on the motorist," sounded like an attack on the very concept of charging.

Perfectly natural for a Tory, you might think. Yet Johnson has practically admitted that, having thrown his promised bone to the voters of west London, he'd have preferred the WEZ to have stayed in a modified form. Surprised? Don't be. When "Red" Ken Livingstone introducing the "tax" to central London in 2003 he remarked, with glee, "I nicked the idea off Milton Friedman." Friedman, the late guru of neoliberal economics, is one of Boris Johnson's intellectual heroes. He wrote in favour of road pricing as a market solution to the problem of road management and maintenance.

And that is what congestion charging is. With demand for road space outstripping supply in London to the detriment of economic efficiency, it would make sound business sense to extract profit from the scarcity and correct the imbalance in the process. That profit could be invested in things motorists want: filling potholes, improving streetscapes and junctions, clamping down on the uninsured who push up the law-abiding's premiums. Yet Tory London assembly member James Cleverly, who has a video of Friedman embedded in his blog, bristles at the merest whiff of an extension of his idol's principle. His colleague Kit Malthouse is more receptive to digging tunnels for cars – with taxpayers' money? – than have their use governed by "the invisible hand".

Congestion charging is, for sure, a complex issue. The Liberal Democrats and others thought Livingstone got the WEZ installation wrong, not least for compensating residents with large discounts if they used the central zone. Would you extend charging by adding discrete zones or make the whole of London one big one? Would you use "tag-and-beacon" tech or GPS? Could increased pedestrian and cycle traffic help keep those unhappy small traders in the black? Then there's the giant task of selling such a plan to the voters, although a new report for the RAC Foundation shows ways this could be done.

In the end, there is a choice: we either tolerate increasingly overcrowded roads in the capital or we do something bold to end it. The economic climate is not conducive to risk – Livingstone has rowed back from a pledge to revive the WEZ. Yet how will the capital and other fast-growing cities pay for the things they need in an age of austerity unless they generate more revenue for themselves? One informed estimate is that London-wide road pricing could bring in £2.5bn a year. As for Boris Johnson's over-taxed motorist, here's a thought. We pay for buses and the Tube both with taxes and with fares. Are fares a "stealth tax"? Are they wrong? If not, why shouldn't motorists in London pay a "fare" for using roads? Just wondering.


Dave Hill

The GuardianTramp

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