Last week, Labour’s mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan pledged to not to abandon the policy of allowing Londonors over 60 to travel free on most of London’s transport services.
No particular surprise there. Boris Johnson first pledged to preserve free travel at 60 in his 2012 mayoral campaign – even though nationally eligibility is slowly being raised to 65 in line with gradual increases in state pension age – and it proved very popular with older voters. Ken Livingstone came out in support, too. And this year, Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate, almost certainly will as well.
This consensus, however, does not make the policy a good one. People are working and living longer than ever before and the baby boomer generation has generally done well in London – especially those lucky enough to own property, as most of them do. Life is tougher for their children and, especially their grandchildren, as house prices and rents have both gone up faster than their earnings.
At the same time, Transport for London (TfL) budgets are under enormous pressure – the Financial Times reported on Friday that the Chancellor is expected to announce big cuts to TfL’s grant in the Spending Review statement next week. Why should a 60 year old hedge fund manager with a £10m house in Notting Hill travel free to the City, while an apprentice living with parents in Leyton, or an office cleaner on a minimum wage of £7.20 travelling from Croydon, would have to pay?
I’ll bet, moreover, that all the mayoral candidates would be delighted to abandon a commitment to this policy if they could. They know it’s unfair, and would appreciate the extra revenue that abandoning it would bring. Sadiq has already pledged to freeze TfL fares and introduce an one hour bus ticket. All this will be expensive to TfL: he’ll need all the extra revenue he can get.
And that raises the interesting thought: could we get the mayoral candidates to come together at this early stage in the electoral battle, while they are still developing their manifestos, to agree on a small number of policies that, though not popular, are good for London? Could they be persuaded to agree, on just a few issues, not to out bid each other with unprincipled electoral giveaways?
I’d suggest four policies in particular, on which it would be good to see them agreeing.
First, yes they should raise the age at which Londoners are entitled to get free travel to the state pension age. This would save TfL well upwards of £30m a year – more as the retirement ages goes up.
Second, the Labour and Conservative mayoral candidates should commit to introducing London wide road user-charging. London is growing fast, and congestion has got much worse recently. This costs the capital dear in terms of lost productivity and poor air quality – and it makes a very unpleasant environment in which to walk and cycle.
While continued investment in London’s train network can relieve some of the pressure on our roads, it won’t be enough. Ken Livingstone’s Congestion Charge was a great innovation in its day, but feels increasingly out of date. New technology would allow a new mayor to develop a highly sophisticated pan-London road pricing scheme with charges that vary according to time of day and road user. The mayor’s official transport strategy makes the case for road pricing in principle – and even Boris is said to accept that London will have to adopt it sooner or later.
Third, the mayoral candidates should also come out in favour of council tax reform. The present system of domestic property taxation is a joke, as almost everyone concedes. Most properties have not been re-evaluated, or bands reformed, since they were first introduced a quarter of a century ago. And the system is deeply regressive – the more expensive a property, the smaller the proportion of its value paid in council tax.
Labour proposed introducing a mansion tax in its last manifesto, but the scheme was highly flawed: raising the sort of money they were proposing to raise would have meant hugely punitive taxes on high value properties. But you could raise more modest sums through introducing higher bands starting on a lower level. Oxford economist John Muellbauer has come up with detailed proposals that address the objections usually aimed at progressive reform of council tax.
It is true that the mayor does not currently have the power to impose new council tax bands on more expensive properties, but the candidates could at least agree to lobby the Chancellor to create higher bands – or, better still, to give London government the power to design a fair and effective council tax regime for the capital.
Fourth, the mayoral candidates should say loud and clear that they want to move away from the policy that, wherever possible, new development in central London should be complimented by new low income housing in the same development. Instead, they should build more affordable homes elsewhere in the capital.
We all support mixed communities in principle. But central London has a great deal of low-income housing already (between a quarter and a third of all properties in Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea cater to low-income families). If we are concerned about mixed communities we should be building more housing for people on middle incomes in these areas. But building any sub-market housing in central London is hugely expensive: you can build many more affordable homes, in mixed income developments, in cheaper areas of the city.
Some on the left will argue that using development subsidy in this way amounts to “social cleansing”. But the mayoral candidates should respond plainly that it’s offensive to use a term, “cleansing”, that was first widely used to describe the terrible policies that Serbian fascists adopted to clear other ethnic groups from Serbia and Bosnia during the Yugoslavian civil war of the 1990s.
Anyway, the recent trends in London, are, if anything, militating against income segregation, not promoting it – with poorer renters moving into once affluent suburbs, and richer households moving into and “gentrifying” once poorer parts of inner London. We can debate whether this is a good thing or bad, but a mayor who is serious about increasing the supply of affordable housing should be doing everything to build as many high quality homes in well planned mixed income developments as possible, and not worry too much which zone they are in.
Imagine if the mayoral candidates – Labour and Conservative at the very least. but others as well – could be persuaded to come together and commit themselves to a small number of “for the good of London” policies in this way. This would not only be a service to London. It might catch on at Westminster and beyond, and so be a contribution to the country as a whole.
In time the meeting (lets call it the “Convention of State”) would become a permanent feature of our political system – as established a moment as the publication of manifestos or the Opening of Parliament.
Ben Rogers is director of the Centre for London. The think tank runs the London Conference, which took place on Wednesday 18 November and this year discussed priorities for the new mayor.