When will London adopt pay-as-you-go road pricing?

Road pricing in London, the old-fashioned way. Image: Getty.

On 21 June, Sadiq Khan, published a draft of the Mayor's Transport Strategy, and some newspaper editors got very excited. The Sun’s headline claimed “London motorists will pay-as-you-go and won’t have anywhere to park”; the Times was more measured with “Drivers in London face first pay-as-you-go road charge”.  

Unfortunately, neither of these headlines are entirely accurate. So what’s really being mooted in the draft strategy and what might it mean?

What does the Mayor’s Strategy actually say?

Firstly, it subtly states that the mayor will keep “existing and planned road user charging schemes under review”. This refers to the existing Congestion Charge, future Ultra Low Emission Zone and other tolls in the Mayor’s gift.

This is probably an acknowledgement that the congestion charge in 2017 is struggling to deliver the same benefits it did back in 2003. Be it because of advances in technology (for example, the sharp rise in private hire cars­) or consumer behaviour (online shopping and services pushing up van and light goods traffic), traffic has risen again, causing all sorts of difficulty for the capital.

Secondly, it nods to what might replace the Congestion Charge, and says the mayor will ”give consideration” to the development of road user charging. Crucially, it doesn’t say the mayor will develop it, but that he will consider it – and that any scheme would be one that “reflects distance, time, emissions, road danger and other factors in an integrated way”.

Lastly and perhaps most interestingly, it outlines proposals to support London’s boroughs in developing their own schemes, either for parking levies or road user charging. The text here suggests that, rather than some grand London-wide scheme, we could begin to see small scale parking levies or charges in pockets of London. If boroughs are bold enough, these could serve as test beds for what might follow across London.

As a statement of intent, the strategy is very welcome. But the caveated wording equally means it might never happen.

How far off is road charging?

At Sustrans, we have long argued for road pricing and supported the London Assembly, the elected members that scrutinise the mayor, in making the case for it. But in 2008, the UK government backed down from its road pricing plans due to a sizeable petition and a referendum in Manchester which sealed its fate. The London mayor clearly has an eye on recent history.

A change to taxation is always a politically difficult sell, but Londoners might well be ready for it. There’s a trend of declining car ownership (43 per cent of London households do not have access to a car) and an increasing evidence base of the harm to human health from air pollution.

The majority of Londoners travel by public transport, walking or cycling, and there’s strong support for gaining more cycle tracks and reclaiming public space from traffic. Match this with business complaints over the difficulties of London’s congestion, and you have an environment conducive to a big and bold solution such as road user charging.

Our relationship with cars and vehicles could soon change completely. The traditional model of direct and exclusive ownership is being disrupted through on demand options and shared ownership. The ever imminent launch of autonomous vehicles is also unchartered territory, with unknown implications for how we will use motorised vehicles in the future.

Road pricing already is one of the few tools with enough influence to genuinely manage congestion, while remodelling London’s streets around walking and cycling. And in a world of potentially cheap, easy and convenient motor vehicles, road pricing could become a necessity.

Nicholas Sanderson is London policy officer at Sustrans, on whose blog this originally appeared.

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A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget is hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?

Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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