Changing the charge

Published: 21 June 2020

This week, London's Congestion Charge has seen sweeping changes - including an increase in its hours of operation and a rise in its cost. Is it truly temporary?

Introduced in 2003, the Congestion Charge is a toll applied to vehicles entering the area within London's Inner Ring Road, with the purpose of making driving into the centre of the capital less appealing. In recent years it's been joined by the ULEZ, an additional charge based on vehicle emissions.

From Monday 22 June, the charge has changed significantly:

  • The cost has risen from £11.50 to £15 per day
  • The hours of operation have been extended, from 0700-1900 to 0700-2200
  • The days of operation have also been extended; instead of being weekday-only, it now applies every day except Christmas Day
  • Exemptions for residents and discounts for auto-pay users have been abolished

Perhaps counterintuitively, in an era when a global pandemic is causing authorities to discourage use of public transport, the charge was reintroduced in May 2020 following a long suspension, and is now being raised. Why?

The cost of transport in a crisis

Transport for London is the organisation that operate London's tube, bus and light rail networks, some of its railway services and its network of major roads. They also administer the Congestion Charge. They are unlike any other transport organisation in the UK - they operate bus services and rail franchises very differently, and they receive no grant from central Government for upkeep of the highways they maintain.

When the Coronavirus pandemic took hold, their income from transport fares virtually ended, but their outgoings remained significant. After eating through their whole contingency fund and every other available source of income, they ran out of money in mid-May and the DfT's choice was to either bail them out, at enormous cost, or watch public transport services in London effectively cease. (You can read more about TfL's unique financial problems in an excellent London Reconnections article.)

The DfT, of course, bailed them out, with a grant of just over £1bn and a further loan of £500m. But handing large amounts of cash to a government body in the UK's most prosperous region, and one run by a Labour mayor, is not a good look for a Conservative Government. So a list of conditions were attached to the rescue package.

The conditions included a wide-ranging review of TfL's finances, focussed on the sustainability of its operating model and "fairness for the British taxpayer". They also included a very direct stipulation regarding one of TfL's income streams. The Congestion Charge would come back, and quickly.

Sure enough, the agreement for extra funding was announced on Friday 15 May, and the Charge was back on Monday the 18th.

He who pays the piper

If you read TfL's literature about the Congestion Charge, all these changes appear to be just "for the duration". They describe the changes to its hours of operation, its price and its array of discounts and exemptions as "temporary".

The details of the agreement between the DfT and TfL, through which the extra funding was supplied, tell a different story. In it, TfL agrees to:

The immediate reintroduction of the London Congestion Charge, LEZ and ULEZ and urgently bring forward proposals to widen the scope and levels of these charges, in accordance with the relevant legal powers and decision-making processes.

Letter from Grant Shapps MP, Secretary of State for Transport, to Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, 14 May 2020

There is no mention of this change being temporary.

It's possible, of course, that this requirement will only stand for the length of time that the DfT is bankrolling TfL, and perhaps the use of the word "temporary" indicates that - when TfL is paying its own way again - they will once again set their own policy for the Congestion Charge. But that doesn't appear to be explicit in the agreement.

The reintroduction of the Congestion Charge is supposed to deter people who are avoiding public transport from driving in to work, and instead encourage them to take to their bicycles. TfL claim that traffic levels inside the Inner Ring Road are already roughly at pre-pandemic levels, and likely to rise much higher if more people attempt to commute by car in order to avoid public transport. That's something they want to avoid. And so the Charge has gone up.

Temporary or "temporary"?

In asking whether this temporary change will ever be reversed, it's also worth considering all the other "temporary" changes that will probably turn out to be permanent once the pandemic is over. Legal measures brought in a couple of months ago allow highway authorities to create cycling infrastructure, change speed limits and make other alterations without the usual consultations, and many of the changes made under these rules will likely never be revoked once the pandemic ends.

Under those rules, TfL and the Boroughs (in line with other cities across the UK and around the world) begun widespread reallocation of space on London's streets to create more space for walking and cycling.

A brand new cycle lane on Langham Place, where previously there was one super-wide general traffic lane. Click to enlarge

A brand new cycle lane on Langham Place, where previously there was one super-wide general traffic lane. Click to enlarge

Across London, new cycle lanes are springing up. Some are simply paintwork where there was already room for a cycle lane, and you might wonder why it's taken this long to make a change that is eminently useful and to nobody's detriment.

In other places, the work is more drastic: the northbound side of Park Lane, for example, was formerly a 40mph four-lane racetrack. The creation of a new two-way cycle track has resulted in construction of new bus stops with concrete kerbs and tarmac surfaces, and the road is now one general traffic lane and one bus lane with a 20mph limit. It looks very permanent indeed.

The idea that the rise in the Congestion Charge is temporary is, with the best will in the world, questionable. Any reduction in price will encourage more people to drive in Central London, and that is never something TfL or the Mayor will want to see. It's very hard to argue that mass private car comuting into a city like London is in any way desirable; the only way London can support the population growth predicted over the coming decades - without wholesale reconstruction of its core - is more intensive use of public transport and more people taking to their bicycles.

The only talk in political circles about reducing it back to £11.50 has been either point-scoring or ill-informed - such as Tory Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey's campaign to get Sadiq Khan to reverse the decision, a pointless act when the change was imposed on Khan by a Tory Government. There appear to be no genuine and serious opponents to the change.

Perhaps the only thing that will change in future, then, is the word "temporary" being quietly dropped from official literature. Indeed, given that the Mayor and the Government - on opposite sides of the political spectrum - are in complete agreement that the private car is not welcome in Central London, it's hard to see why it was ever put there in the first place.

Comments

John M. 25 June 2020

Re your statement: "[TfL] receive no grant from central Government for upkeep of the highways they maintain."
Can you enlighten us, please:
Is that situation different from normal highway authories elsewhere in England?
Which roads does TfL maintain? (as distinct from London Boroughs)
Elsewhere in England, motorways and Trunk Roads are maintained by the Highways Agency, not county councils / unitary authorities. Is that different in London?

Hi John - to briefly answer your questions:

  • Yes, this is a different situation. The original purpose of road numbering was "classification", to put roads into categories for different levels of funding. Local authorities receive funding from the DfT according to the mileage of A-road, B-road, unclassified etc. that they maintain, presently delivered as part of the Revenue Support Grant. TfL does not receive this, and appears to be unique in that position, excepting trunk road authorities which are obviously wholly supported by central funds.
  • TfL maintains the London Red Route network; broadly these are the primary (green) A-roads within Greater London, including the North/South Circulars, A1, A13, A23, A40, etc etc. Shortage of funds has meant a hiatus on almost all maintenance work, which is having noticeable consequences - several miles of A40 have central reserve barrier that will not stop vehicle crossovers, for example, because renewal is many years overdue; major structures on the A4, A40, A406 are not receiving the regular maintenance they require; and some structures - principal among them the elevated Westway viaducts - are in a seriously compromised position. The whole Westway, designed for 50 and 60mph running, is now limited to 30mph to limit further damage in the absence of long-overdue remedial work.
  • The only roads in Greater London managed by Highways England are the tail ends of M1, M3, M4 and M11. With the exception of those (and very short lengths of A3 and A13 at the GLA border), roads in Greater London are not trunk, they are devolved to the Greater London Authority and thus to TfL.
Huzaifah 26 June 2020

Thanks for the rather frank comment. You have voiced exactly my concerns - and another thing to remember is, that as far as I remember from this website, the NSL is also supposes to be temporary!

Fraser Mitchell 26 June 2020

I suppose eventually, (when that ever occurs - CC charge of £50 a day ?), commerce and business at all levels will find it so onerous that there will be a movement out of London. Certainly people living within the zone must get fed up with having the CC added to their bill for building and other works, like washing machine repairs etc. I suppose they're rich enough not to notice !

To be honest, loads and loads of people are already oving out of London because of these issues, to cities like Birmingham etc.

My brother lives in the c-charge zone (I used to, now in zone 2) - in honesty the general vibe in inner London is fewer cars is better. Residents discount makes it affordable, and there’s no desire to wind back the clock and have more people driving in (and no road space for it, and no support for wider roads).

I’ve got on my bike a lot more since lockdown started - for the best I think. We can’t go back to the old normal as the old normal got us here.

Some of the comments on here / Sabre show what a different world London is in vs the countryside / other towns - saying we should bring back the M41 / A40(M), etc. We’re closer to roads being ripped up than more coming in now.

Be careful what you wish for ! Residents discount could disappear in future and when you complain, you'll just get the usual "tough sh*t, we need the money !"
Having said that, the congestion in central London at weekends is appalling, so having to pay the CC is a good thing. Whether it's right for it to be payable up to 22.00 is another matter. I suppose when all the pubs and restaurants close, there will be a rethink. The biggest problem in London is the huge amount of money floating around there. A CC of £15 will be small change for most Londoners. Maybe make it £50 for six months and see what happens. If traffic remains the same, make it £100. There must come a point at which people just won't pay it. Of course the penalties for non-payment would have to go up in proportion.
The above is said with tongue in cheek (a bit)

Terry Trumpets 16 July 2020

If TfL is desperate for cash, they could try reducing bus services, mothballing the suburban railways and pruning back the Underground to zone 2 - which is what would happen in any other city.

Granted, it would put hundreds of people out of work, and reduce an already congested city to chaos, but their middle-managers' salaries would be safe, which is the most important thing.

TfL can't just cut service on rail lines. That is generally mandated. If they mothballed suburban railways then they would hav to provide bus replacement rail services. Also, cutting back the tube wont help anyone. People need to get to work, like healthcare workers etc.

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