So far Ken Livingstone's congestion charging seems to be working. Does this mean socialists should give three (or even two) cheers and adopt it as part of our response to pollution, traffic congestion and other environmental problems?
I don't think so - and not because I drive a car or support present levels of car use. Rather it is an attempt to use market forces to deal with problems that have their ultimate origins in the way the market operates. It is a regressive tax that lets the rich off more lightly than other car users. And it does little to deal with the real problems that lead to car usage in the first place.
Congestion charging is based on setting a monetary value on something that was previously free - at least in terms of its costs to individual road users. The idea originated with Milton Friedman, free market economist and Thatcherite guru, from whom Livingstone acknowledges he 'nicked the idea'. Through putting a price on the use of certain roads, he hopes to deter enough drivers from using cars in Central London.
The £5 price Livingstone has set is arbitrary. What if the charge - the 'real market price' - had to be much higher to convince enough people to significantly reduce congestion? Would Mick Duncan (Solidarity 3/22) still support it? Livingstone has now said that he won't increase the charge for a number of years. What guarantee is there then that the charge will be at a sufficiently high level to deter congestion?
Who does the congestion charge hit? Livingstone is quite frank: "It is a flat rate tax like the Poll Tax." The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that while the very poorest will not be hit very hard (because of less car ownership and use), those at the top in terms of income will also escape lightly relative to their income. So the charge can be seen as a hidden redistribution from those in the middle (probably most of whom work in Central London offices, schools, fire stations etc) to benefit better-off car users. In class terms, there is no cost to capital in workers taking longer to get to work or in problems using their cars for non-work purposes. Congestion is only reflected very indirectly in their costs when deliveries take longer or transport costs rise. Insofar as this happens, it will probably be passed on as higher prices.
Congestion charging does not deal with the underlying problems that lead to car use. Livingstone promises more buses - fine, but he is also forcing more people on to what he has described as an already unsafe Tube. Even if public transport improved dramatically, it would not resolve the causes of car use. I do not believe that all car users are unimaginative, lazy or lying when, like Jane Sprigg (Solidarity 3/22), they say car use is often a necessity. Car use has been structured into many people's lives as a result of a more general decline in public provision, the consequence of the dominance of profit considerations in building our cities (and in the relationship between city, suburb and countryside) and in the encouragement of individualistic solutions to social problems.
Terry Liddle is right to say (Solidarity 3/23) that we need a much more radical - and anti-capitalist - solution to deal with the root causes of car use. Take one major problem: the distance workers have to travel to get to work. The recent FBU strike brought out the fact that because of the high cost of housing virtually none of London's firefighters can afford to live in the city. They - and other public service and low paid workers - are forced to commute long distances and will often do so by car.
As immediate measures to deal with this, we need a crash programme of building affordable public housing in cities such as London - not just pre-fabs for teachers or a small percentage of the space in private speculative developments. This could be financed by a levy on office space in London, which might also have the effect of making firms reverse the high concentration of jobs in the centre of the city. While Livingstone will pay lip service to this idea, he would not be prepared to take any measures that would conflict with London's role as an international financial centre i.e. would encroach on the profits of private business in London. A congestion charge is much less difficult.
There are a whole range of these more fundamental issues that need to be considered if car use is to be reduced significantly. They require a rejection of the primacy of profit considerations in the development of our cities. Congestion charging does nothing to address these issues. As the eco-Marxist, Paul Burkett, puts it: "The contradictions between monetary and socio-ecological priorities cannot be overcome by grafting 'green' tax and subsidy schemes onto a material production system shaped and driven by money and capital."
(a Londoner in voluntary Mancunian exile)