London’s mayoral election campaign is currently bogged down in an apparently endless row about the cost of fares on the London Underground.
Labour’s Sadiq Khan argues that Tube fares are far too expensive and has promised to freeze their cost for the next four years.
Khan also claims that the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith has “secret plans” to raise fares above inflation for four years. He says this would inevitably cause the average Londoner (whoever that is) to lose hundreds of pounds a year in extra fares.
In response Goldsmith claims that Khan’s fares freeze would inevitably lead to council tax going up, Tube upgrades being cancelled and numerous other apocalyptic predictions it’s not worth going into here.
Meanwhile both sides accuse the other of being dishonest and hiding their real plans from Londoners. Sadly the truth is that both sides are basically right about that.
For Khan’s part, his claim to be able to take hundreds of millions of pounds out of the transport budget without hurting investment in the capital is obviously false. Even if you accept that his fares freeze would cost TfL just £450 million as he claims (TfL say it would cost close to four times that figure) that would still have a massive impact on the projects and upgrades TfL could invest in.
Khan claims the entire freeze can be achieved by making efficiencies at TfL. But most of those efficiencies are being planned anyway, as TfL commissioner Mike Brown told the London Assembly this morning. And even if Khan can find extra savings on top of that, this wouldn’t change the fact that about 45% of TfL’s income comes from fares. If you cut the fare income then you obviously cut the amount TfL can invest in the Tube. It’s that simple. You can argue that London’s transport network doesn’t need that money but you can’t argue that it doesn’t exist.
In reality the debate is not about whether TfL can “afford” to cut fares now, it’s about what else TfL won’t be able to afford in the future. With central government set to cut its subsidy to TfL in the coming years, Khan’s freeze might mean delaying plans to extend the Bakerloo line into SE London, or it might mean scrapping plans to extend the tram system in Croydon, or it might mean waiting even longer to install step-free access to Tube stations. Whatever it is, it will have an impact.
It’s worth pointing out one of the weird anomalies of London politics is that when it comes to transport, it is the left which argues for lower public spending and lower taxes (in the form of fares) while the right argues for higher spending and higher fares. And in this race it is the Labour candidate, rather than the Conservative one, who is pro-austerity.
But if Khan is not being entirely honest about the impact of his fares policy, then neither is Goldsmith. Because for all his criticisms of Khan’s plans, Goldsmith has yet to say what if anything he would do for London’s fare-payers. The Tories claim that Khan’s plans would take £2 billion out of TfL’s investment programme, but what they don’t say is that this is calculated by comparing Khan’s cash freeze with TfL’s own business case projections. And those projections assume that fares will continue to rise by inflation-busting amounts for the next five years. By using TfL’s projections, Goldsmith’s campaign are implicitly confirming that he would also raise fares above inflation year after year. When asked about this Goldsmith will only say that he refuses to make promises he can’t keep. That’s fine but the solution to voter mistrust is not to refuse to make any promises before an election, only to reveal your true intentions once Londoners have left their polling booths.
Without that honesty Londoners are left none the wiser about the real impact of Goldsmith and Khan’s plans. Will it be lower fares but lower investment under Khan, or will it be higher fares but higher investment under Goldsmith? Until both candidates start to be honest about it we can only guess.