Confessions of a Political Animal

September 3, 2008

Q. When is a consultation not a consultation?

A. When it thinks its a referendum.

Earlier this week, Mayor Boris Johnson launched his consultation on the future of the western extension of the London Congestion Charge. Whilst on the surface this looks like a manifesto pledge fulfilled, dig a bit deeper and its an interesting case of reality catching up with a politician who has had to learn pretty damn fast that populism in opposition just doesn’t cut it in government.

Let’s flash back a mere nine months to January 2008 and take a look at this BBC News article about an interview with Candidate Johnson.

The western congestion charge zone would be scrapped if London mayoral hopeful Boris Johnson won the election, the Conservative candidate has said. In an interview with BBC London he said the western extension – introduced in February 2007 – was not working.

And a little further on:

Mr Johnson said: “I don’t think the western extension is working very well. I think it’s delivering huge numbers of cars into the central zone, and I think we should get rid of it.” He said the congestion zone had seen a 15% rise in traffic numbers in the last year and was not “delivering the cuts in congestion it promised to do”.

All pretty clear cut – the Western extension is toast. By the time of the publication of his manifesto, some mention of a consultation had crept in:

I will do what Ken Livingstone did not, and listen to Londoners on the Western extension. The Western extension was introduced despite the overwhelming opposition of local residents and I think that was wrong. I will consult the residents in the zone and on the border on whether we should keep the Western extension, and whatever the result I will abide by it.

So now we’re not so sure if we have an opinion. And what constitutes the result of a consultation? As in so many areas, the populist promises of the Johnson campaign had a large amount of less-well trumpeted and poorly thought out small print attached to them.

So, let’s jump forward to the present and see where our favourite Mayor’s thinking is up to. Let us assume that TfL’s site on the consultation speaks for Mr Johnson. Remember that Western Extension that “wasn’t working” in January? Well…

Traffic in the Western Extension has been reduced by the scheme, with 30,000 fewer cars entering the area each day; a 10 percent reduction in circulating traffic. Congestion Charging has also helped to reduce vehicle emissions and encouraged people travelling in the area to use public transport, or to walk or cycle.

Initially, congestion reduced in the Western Extension by around 20 percent. Traffic volumes remain well below those seen before the Western Extension was introduced, but other changes (includes significant development and road works) have increased congestion again. TfL will seek to tackle this through enhanced road management. It is clear that without the Western Extension in place, this congestion would be worse.

Oh, and in case you thought it was all a Red Ken anti-business wheeze:

TfL’s monitoring indicates that the extended Congestion Charging zone (the original central London plus the Western Extension) has had a broadly neutral effect on business and the economy.

 And no longer is it simply a matter of consulting on a ‘scrap it or keep it’ basis. Now we have a third option of introducing new payment systems and a charge-free period in the middle of the day. Quite how having half the charging-zone exempt for a period of the day will make the Congestion Charge ‘fairer and more effective’ (© B.Johnson 2008), let alone easier to use is beyond me, but that’s another issue. There are indications that Johnson may be leaning increasingly towards this third option. What could have happened? Has someone from TfL sat down with the Mayor and pointed out exactly what increasing congestion would do to his popularity and what the revenue cut would do the other transport projects?

Of course, in public, Boris continues to bluster:

“The previous Mayor made the decision to introduce the western extension in the face of overwhelming opposition. Unlike my predecessor, I am going into this with an open mind and this will be a genuine consultation. It is high time that politicians listened to the people whom they represent and I am proud to keep the pledge made during my election campaign to hold a further consultation. Londoners can be assured that, whether they stand for or against, this time their opinions will be respected and we will abide by the results. […] This is not a referendum, so it won’t be limited to a ‘do you or don’t you want to keep it?'”

The problem is, we were given the impression during the election that it was going to be a referendum and in some ways the Mayor continues to suggest that is the case. The reality is that despite what he claims to the contrary, this is simply an exact replay of the original consultation that Livingstone carried out, minus the third option (Ken was never one for the Third Way…). Boris claims that the original decision was flawed because a majority of respondents were against the extension, but Ken went ahead anyway.

Of course, any half-decent politician knows that a consultation isn’t a referendum – its not a case of counting votes. There is always a much greater incentive for those opposed to a scheme to make the effort to respond – and in particular responses are invariable skewed towards the politically-literate, leisure-rich middle classes. Every week, councils across the country will approve planning applications for which every representation has been negative – and they will often be right to do so. If Britain was run on the bare outcome of consultations, it would still be the middle ages. For a big decision like the western extension, it often makes sense to commission market research which can obtain the views of a much more representative cross section of the community. Livingstone did this (see Annex A) – and found that on a random sample of those living in or near the proposed extension, 50% agreed with the proposal and 28% disagreed. Across London, the support for the extension was still higher. A very similar pattern occurred with the consultation for the now moribund West London Tram scheme – responses heavily against, but properly conducted surveys and research showing residents generally in favour.

Will Boris be carrying out any such research? We haven’t been told. All we know is that sometime after the 5th October,

TfL will analyse the responses that have been submitted and present the results of this analysis to the Mayor of London, who will then make a decision as to how he wishes to proceed.

 No details about how responses will be weighted, whether the decision will be made solely on simple numbers of responses in favour of each option, or what issues (congestion, air quality, emissions) will be taken into account by the Mayor in making his decision. Until we do know otherwise, we must assume that one of the most important strategic transport decisions of this Mayoralty is going to be farmed out to a plebiscite of Chelsea tractor drivers and Kensington boutique owners.

Oh and by the way – the good news is that contrary to his manifesto pledge, Johnson is consulting all Londoners, not just those in the zone. With so many unanswered questions about this consultation, I can’t say for certain how much use putting your views in if you live elsewhere will be, but you might as well give it a go. You’ve got until 5th October.

Update 19/09: More on the latest information and non-information on the consultation here.



  1. […] it is well known that the Mayor is in favour of governance by consultation, regardless of the financial implications. But we can be sure that if the Conservative group are voting against innocuous motions like the […]

    Pingback by Roger rabbits « Confessions of a Political Animal — September 18, 2008 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

  2. […] Charge, Ken Livingstone, London Politics, Transport, Western Extension Consultation I wondered a couple of weeks ago whether Boris Johnson would be prepared to accept that consultations, such as that on the […]

    Pingback by Boris and the Wild West - the epic continues « Confessions of a Political Animal — September 19, 2008 @ 1:49 pm | Reply

  3. […] Do you notice the obvious group that’s missing from that? Perhaps the group that has been the most vociferous in its opposition to the proposals and are most likely to be put at risk by its implementation? The group that the Mayor claims to be a keen supporter, nay practicing member, of? Er…cyclists, Boris? Although I don’t think cycling campaign groups should be too worried about missing out on this consultation. Given that Johnson has effectively announced the motorbikes in bus lanes as a fait accompli, we can assume that this is a purely window dressing exercise. Not that Boris would ever engage in that, of course. It was his predecessor who went around ‘ignoring the wishes of Londoners’. Boris told us so. […]

    Pingback by Questioning Boris: some highlights (& lowlights) « Confessions of a Political Animal — October 21, 2008 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

  4. […] he will be scrapping the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge. We noted before that there had been straws in the wind in the opposite direction and that Johnson had been modifying his language and […]

    Pingback by A Western Democracy? « Confessions of a Political Animal — November 27, 2008 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

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