Imitation is, of course, the sincerest form of flattery. But now that “High Street Ken” Livingstone – the Chelsea motorist’s newest friend – has decided to imitate Boris Johnson’s policy of binning the western extension of the congestion charge, let’s recap what he said about this very idea just fourteen weeks ago.
“Londoners from Charlton to Chalk Farm will pay for the Chelsea congestion charge axe,” steamed Ken. It was “a political choice with direct consquences that cost Londoners across the city more in fares… cutting £50m-£70m in revenue a time when public services are under severe pressure makes no financial sense and… no sense in terms of traffic flow or pollution either.” The date of this passionate denunciation? December 24, 2010.
According to Ken’s ever-elastic calculations, the “£50-70 million in revenue” from the western extension which he quoted in December has now turned into a “£100-150 million cost” of bringing it back. That, he says, is why he’s not going to. Both numbers are, of course, total nonsense – as I described recently, the revenue brought in by the extension was far less than £70 million, or “Transport for Livingstone’s” claimed figure of £55 million. And even TfL could not manage to spend £150 million on re-erecting a few number plate cameras.
It’s the Ken groupies I feel sorriest for. Having worked so tirelessly to push the old line, they’re now having to pivot on a sixpence and explain the “intriguing” latest development as a “re-thinking of budgetary priorities.”
But this U-turn does raise more serious questions about Ken’s sums – which are shaping up to be a huge new problem for him in addition to all his existing problems. Three weeks ago, in interviews with BBC London and Mayorwatch, Ken pledged to stop Boris’s planned cuts in GLA services and preserve all existing capital spending (such as Crossrail) – while at the same time freezing public transport fares in real terms and freezing his element of the council tax for four years. When asked how he could possibly square this remarkable circle, given that the GLA’s Whitehall grant is being cut by 20%, he replied: “I’ll tell you the day after the election.”
The Mayor of London only has four sources of income: Whitehall grant, council tax, public transport fares and the congestion charge. The first is falling dramatically. Ken has now, in effect, promised to freeze the other three, or at least very heavily limit how much he can raise from the C-charge (unless his pledge on the western extension is because he is secretly planning a far wider extension of the congestion charge, something I’ll be looking at in a future post.)
Yet as well as pledging not to bring back the western extension, Ken on Tuesday also promised to start work on three further vastly expensive capital projects – Crossrail Two (this appears to be the project formerly known as the “Chelsea-Hackney line” – two gifts for Chelsea in one week, Ken!), Crossrail Three (Waterloo to Euston, apparently – anyone heard of that one before?) and a second Thames Barrier.
There’s something desperate about this fantasy-project one-upmanship. The Johnsons at number 21 are buying the family a Crossrail, so the Livingstones at number 23 must get a Crossrail Two – and Three! (Perhaps Lembit Opik or Jenny Jones can promise us Crossrail Four and Five?) And, er, I know what, I’ll buy you a second Thames Barrier! Why? One for ASLEF, and one for the RMT, perhaps?
But the main effect is as follows. With each week that passes, the gap between what Ken is pledging to spend and the money he is pledging to raise grows wider. How on earth is he going to pay for everything?
Ken’s latest answer is “the bond markets” – alas, he doesn’t seem to have realised that you can’t borrow on the bond markets to finance non-capital spending, such as keeping down Tube fares or financing Lee Jasper’s lady friends.
There’s only two ways out that I can see. With the oil price going up, perhaps Ken can get his old employers in the Iranian government to sling us a riyal or two. Failing that, there’s always Comrade Hugo…