Why Boris Johnson is wrong to scrap the new London Congestion Charge

Published: 09 July 2008

Oh Boris, you mop-headed moron. Embarrassing deputy-resignation aside, you seemed to be getting it so right; reintroducing the Routemaster bus, reconsidering the western extension to the Congestion Charge zone and yesterday scrapping the proposed £25 charge for bigger cars.

But then we read down and find you’re also binning the proposed exemption for cars emitting less than 120g/km of CO2, which was about the only bright idea your predecessor ever had. We need carrots, not sticks, to encourage us to buy greener cars.

The £25 charge was all stick; it was the product of envy and greed and it had to be abandoned. But also abandoning the carrot of free entry for dozens of affordable, practical low-emissions cars is spectacularly short-sighted and means the accursed congestion charge misses its biggest opportunity to cut emissions and fossil fuel use.

Why the 120g/km exemption was abandoned

Ken got his sums wrong. He didn’t anticipate just how many models would get under the 120g/km barrier, or how affordable they would be. We Londoners would have bought them by the tens of thousands. Virtually every high-priced Lexus GS and RX sold in London is an even higher-priced hybrid model, because they are Congestion Charge-exempt. Just imagine the impact on the buying decisions of the millions of us with a more typical ten or fifteen grand to spend on a new car, and for whom the £8 charge is a more significant sum.

Yes, congestion in central London would have worsened slightly. But this is about so much more than just traffic. The cars we would have chosen would have produced much less pollution and consumed much less fuel everywhere they drove; across London and across the country.

A very unlevel playing field

Boris says the changes are in the interest of fairness, but how is it fair that a £40,000-plus Lexus hybrid at 185g/km still gets in free, but a clever little seven-grand Aygo at 108g/km still has to pay? Why not encourage us to buy a Focus 1.6 TDCi at 119g/km instead of a more polluting petrol or bigger diesel?

The reason is simple. We would have switched in such numbers that Boris would have lost too much money. With the Congestion Charge’s absurdly expensive bureaucracy to maintain, he is as addicted to its revenue as Ken was.

Short of scrapping it altogether, exempting the least-polluting cars was the best thing he could have done with the charge, making it a force for change. But Boris bottled it, and it remains just a pointless, unpopular tax.

Click here for the news of how the £25-a-day Congestion Charge was scrapped yesterday

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features