Should Croydon be in zone 4? A brief investigation of the TfL fare zones

Andrew Adonis – peer of the realm, arch remainer, former transport secretary, would-be Labour MP for Vauxhall – has been to Croydon. More than that he’s been thinking about Croydon, which is always dangerous. Here’s what he’s been thinking:


Some background, in the unlikely event you’ve landed on this story without knowing what “zone 4” means. Transport for London divides its tube and rail network into concentric fare zones. Zone 1 is the central business district, 2 & 3 are inner London, 4 to 6 are the suburbs. On selected routes beyond the official bounds of the capital, you’ll find stations in zones 7 to 9, as well as assorted lettered ones where the fares are weird, but that’s by the by: the rule, basically, is that the closer into the city you are, the lower the zone number and the lower the fare you have to pay.

Croydon, a south London/Surrey suburb that would be a sizeable city in its own right had it not long ago been swallowed by London, has two rail stations in its commercial centre. East Croydon is a stop on the London to Brighton line; West Croydon is served primarily by suburban services. Both are currently in zone 5.

On Adonis’ second point I tend to agree. The names East and West Croydon bug me for the faintly esoteric reason that

    a) they’re both in central Croydon, and

    b) phrasing them that way around suggests the two are a long way apart rather than about half a mile from each other.

Personally I’d go with Croydon East and Croydon West, but if local worthies want to call the bigger station Croydon Central then, well, fill your boots.

The other point, though, is more complicated. If you commute between central London and Croydon then it’s obviously in your interests to bring it down a zone as that’ll nudge it into a cheaper fare band. That, in turn, stands to benefit businesses who employ those commuters or are trying to attract south Londoners to spend money in the town.

Does it make sense, though? Is Croydon actually close enough to central London to justify being in zone 4?

To find out, I just spend an oddly therapeutic quarter hour measuring the distance between various important outer London centres and Charing Cross, the official centre of London. Here are the results, ranked by distance in miles, and with the fare zone included:

Logically, given the concentric nature of the London fare zones, you would expect the zone numbers to increase steadily as the distance from the city centre does, and for the most part they do. Not always, though: Kingston is marooned in zone 6 despite being a distance from Charing Cross more appropriate for zone 5.

Meanwhile, Epsom and Dartford, contiguous suburbs outside the Greater London boundary, fall out of the main system into the freaky outer zones, despite being closer in than Uxbridge. But Epping, several miles beyond the boundary and even outside the M25, gets to be in zone 6 because of a special arrangement between TfL and the local authorities.

There are several reasons for such oddities. One is that the idea Charing Cross is the centre of London is merely a useful fiction: London doesn’t really have a centre, so much as a lozenge-shaped central zone, running roughly three miles north to south and six east to west. Measurements from Charing Cross, convenient though they are, might be misleading.

Another is that Greater London itself is similarly unbalanced: that’s about 32 miles east to west but only 26 north to south.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, based on Ordnance Survey data.

A third is that its boundaries owe as much to the local politics of the early 1960s as they do to any rational sense of what London is. The only reason Epsom ended up outside, despite being an entirely suburban district surrounded by Greater London on three sides, is because the local Tories kicked up a stink half a century ago. (More on that here.) That, perversely, means higher fares for the locals today.

Anyway. You can make a case for Croydon being better placed in zone 4 than 5 but it isn’t an overwhelming one: Kingston has a far better case for promotion. Which is a bit of a wet conclusion, if I’m honest with you, but then again I really just wanted an excuse to play with a map.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 

There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.