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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9 Responses to “Why we must expand the Congestion Charge Zone”

  1. Richard

    An interesting point of view. The last time the congestion charge area was expanded congestion actually went up. All those households within the expanded zone who had cars and therefore had already paid the charge(in some form) reasoned that they might just as well use their car as not. Rather than expand the area the price needs to rise to such a point that is a serious disincentive. I would put that at around £20,

  2. Dave Stewart

    Unless it was set up so there were multiple congestion zones, each with it’s own (smaller than the total cost would otherwise be) charge and only those living inside a particular zone would be exempt from said charge. That would solve the problem you raise. It also would leave open the option of varying the charge in each of the various zones reactively to dissuade car usage in areas where it is more problematic. Of course any such plan would be deeply unpopular as people are very seldom able to look past the immediate an obvious personal negative (being charged) to see the bigger picture (not being poisoned by the air you breath and the economic cost of congestion).

  3. damon

    Why not just ban poor people from driving in the zone?

  4. AlanGiles

    I hope Mr. Thomas is against the third Heathrow runway, because Jowell certainly isn’t. It would be a bit pointless to extend the congestion charge, if we were going to allow yet more severe pollution over West London

  5. I'm very cross about this.

    You could cut tube fares by introducing driverless trains and sacking all the overpaid drivers and if the people of Brixton could only have energy from their own solar powered energy generation schemes then they’d soon come to their senses about that.

  6. flipkipper

    Just copy the German/Scandinavian system of categorising vehicles and their exclusion from city centres subject to the amount of pollution they cause. We copy everything else so don’t be shy. Bye bye black cabs btw.

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  8. Cliff Bartle

    Gareth I am very tempted to vote for you to be the Labour Mayor as you seem to be the only Labour nominee that has tackling congestion and the pollution it causes as a serious policy. BUT BUT BUT to suggest that the natural limit of the congestion zone would be the North and South Circular roads has got me seriously worried. If the zone is just inside these roads they would become seriously congested with even more pollution as they would be the natural route for EVERYONE to travel around the zone. How can you justify bringing in a policy that relieves one group of Londoners by making another group of Londoners lives even more polluted, congested, noisy, dangerous. We already suffer enough being that while the majority of Londoners benefit from Lorry controls at night and at weekends we are part of what is know as the excluded road network in London which has had all restrictions on HGVs removed by the current buffoon mayor. We get the trucks 24 hours a day 265 days a year. The South Circular in particular which is not a purpose built highway (unlike the North Circular) but a series of residential streets cobbled together from east to west with a few street signs. And for the majority of its route is single carriageway and 90% residentilal. THINK BEFORE YOU MAKE COMMENTS LIKE THAT PLEASE.

  9. Cliff Bartle

    that of course is a martian year and should have read 365 days 🙂

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