Thursday, 27 November 2008

Abolishing the congestion extension: an odd idea of democracy

Boris Johnson beat Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral contest last May in big part because a lot of people wanted the right to drive their vehicles wherever, whenever and as fast as they like. Now he’s taking the first step towards paying them back for their support by announcing the abolition of the western extension to London’s congestion zone.

Actually, bicycle-riding Bojo didn’t have the ungreen guts to simply abolish the zone off his own bat. He disguised the decision as the product of a public consultation exercise. And he warned those who were ‘consulted’ that abolition would cost a lot of money, cause a lot of congestion, pollute the air in London even more than it is already and generally make life more difficult and unpleasant in the city. So he could palm off all responsibility for this environmental disaster in that bumbling Bojoish manner with a ‘Look, I did my jolly best to make the environmentalist case but the public just weren’t having it and who am I to ride my bicycle roughshod over their democratic verdict?’

The problem is that Bojo’s consultation exercise, in which he promised to ‘listen to the people of London’ and go along with whatever they said, has about as much to do with democracy as a phone-in talk show. Those who bother to express their views are those who feel strongest on the subject.

So, unsurprisingly, it’s those who were being made to pay more for the privilege of driving their petrol combustion engines through any semblance of a sensible transport and environmental policy who shouted loudest. Out of 28,000 responses (London’s electorate numbers 5,044,962, by the way), 67 per cent of individuals and 87 per cent of businesses said get rid of the zone, let us drive for free. You’d have had a similar response if you’d proposed abolishing car insurance.

Much less well-publicised has been the response to Transport for London’s mini-opinion survey on the subject. This was organised to see how representative the responses to Bojo’s consultation exercise were.

The answer is: hardly at all. In the TfL survey, only 41 per cent of individuals (out of 2,000 surveyed) favoured getting rid of the western extension and only half of businesses (out of 1,000). Thirty per cent of individuals favoured keeping it as it is and 15 per cent said they would keep it but make changes to the way it operates (such as easing restrictions in the middle of the day).

On a crude reckoning that makes a 45:41 per cent majority in favour of keeping a modified scheme – which is an odd sort of popular mandate for its abolition. If Bojo goes ahead with getting rid of it – and incurs all the costs of doing so, including the removal of signs and cameras and road marking and all the rest, as well as the estimated £70 million annual revenue loss – let it be clear that it is his decision. He should not be allowed to hide behind some floppy notion of the ‘people’ having spoken.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid to say that Boris was elected on a pledge to consult on the congestion charge, not to remove it