Why we must expand the Congestion Charge Zone

Air pollution is a major public health issue which is only going to get worse


London’s Congestion Charge Zone needs to be extended and refined. This is one of a series of direct initiatives to make London greener and more liveable, and it is urgently needed. The scale of air pollution in central London, and growing congestion, means the city’s transport planners need to put in place a much more ambitious Congestion Charge Zone.

Transport for London’s own estimates suggest that London’s roads are already coming under greater pressure. More space is needed to achieve safer cycling and walking routes. New housing developments are increasing the numbers using local roads and an extra 100,000 people a year moving to London is also increasing the demand to use the capital’s roads to move people and goods.

If nothing else changes there will be at least a 60 per cent increase in congestion by 2031 in central London, while the rest of inner London is set to see congestion rise by 25 per cent and even outer London is set to see a 15 per cent rise. Traffic speeds are coming down and journeys are taking longer.

With air pollution also now a major public health issue, the need for a debate about extending the Congestion Zone is increasingly urgent. Nearly 9,500 people die early each year, according to new London figures, due to long term exposure to air pollution with diesel run cars, lorries and buses largely to blame.

Much as campaigners like to suggest aviation is the primary problem, the GLA and Transport for London’s research shows it is ‘surface transport’ which is the biggest problem.

Having introduced the Congestion Zone in 2003, Ken Livingstone considered and introduced the Western extension to the current Congestion Zone in 2008, which Boris scrapped in 2011. Some discussions have been had about extending the Congestion Zone eastwards towards Canary Wharf. A new mayor would need to consult on the exact boundaries, but an expanded Zone will be needed.

My instinct is that the North and South Circular roads would be the best ‘natural’ boundaries for an expanded Zone but further serious analytical work by Transport for London experts will be needed.

I would use the extra revenue from an expanded Zone to invest in safer cycling, in accelerating the switch to electric and low carbon buses and cars and away from diesel powered vehicles. When Ken introduced the Congestion Zone the technology did not exist to charge road users according to how much pollution their car or lorry generated. Now it does, and we should refine the charging arrangements.

We should give thought to which Londoners ought to pay a reduced charge or no charge at all. Nurses, Metropolitan Police officers, military veterans might be good candidates for not having to pay a charge at all given their vital public service role.

Beyond extending the Congestion Zone, the next mayor should champion ‘decarbonising’ Transport for London, publishing a strategy for TfL’s switch to low carbon, more renewable fuels.

We need to encourage the spread of community owned energy. Brixton Energy’s solar powered energy generation schemes are an example of what community and government (local in this case) initiatives can achieve. Staff in the GLA ought to be able to help community groups negotiate the difficulties of crowdsourcing the finance and organising the grid connections to get more co-op energy schemes up and running.

And a new mayor needs to drive a new agenda to extend London’s green and open spaces. One in 13 parents say they never let their children play outside. Increasing Londoners access to and enjoyment of our urban open spaces by making London the world’s first National Park City would be a huge step in the right direction.

At the same time we need to offer the carrot of more affordable tube, train and bus fares. London’s public transport network is the most expensive in the world and an across the board cut would help all Londoners, but particularly the poorest. That’s why I would cut fares on day one of my mayoral term by 10 per cent followed by a freeze thereafter – an almost 20 per cent cut in real terms by 2020.

Extending the Congestion Zone will be controversial, but I believe Londoners are ready for the debate. Air pollution and rising congestion are now too serious for a new mayor to ignore. Add in action on solar energy, a new London Urban National Park and fares cuts and a more liveable London will be the result.

Gareth Thomas is the Labour & Co-op MP for Harrow West and is standing to be the Labour candidate for London mayor. Follow him on Twitter

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