If the government wants ‘clean air’, it can start investing in local transport somewhere other than London

Pressured by our still-affiliated EU member states into finally doing something about climate change, the UK government is frantically trying to reduce pollution levels in Britain’s metropolitan hotspots. But without decent municipal transport services to offset high congestion charges everywhere but London, the government’s ‘clean air’ drive will only increase mobility poverty in regional areas.

When it comes to the UK capital, the government’s congestion-charge onslaught is fair enough. Last week, London’s Ultra-Low Emissions Zone began levying a daily £12.50 fee upon cars that don’t meet the emissions standards of the zone. Some motorists have derided the charge a ‘poll tax’, arguing that it will affect low-income families who can’t afford electric cars. Most agree, however, that London’s toxic atmosphere requires immediate thinning. Besides, with an extensive (and cheap) network of tube links, bus services and local trains, will the charge really make much difference to the average commuter? Probably not.

But congestion charges in regional areas are a different story – and that’s because regional councils don’t have their own Transport for London equivalent. As a highly organised, integrated public body – capable of implementing policy and receiving government bail-outs if targets are not met – TfL ensures that public transport fares within Greater London remain comically reasonable. In the surrounding regions, meanwhile, where government has no legal duty to guarantee efficiency or affordable fares, local bus prices have faced inflation rates of over 35% since 1995.

The 1985 Transport Act marks the beginning of this tragic affair. Under Thatcher, local bus services outside London were deregulated and privatised: the proviso being that this would ensure increased competition, leading to better services and lower prices. In reality, the reverse is true, meaning buses are doing nothing to relieve congestion or reduce fuel emissions. In fact, they only make driving cars the more economic option.

That’s why it’s so likely the government-decreed Low-Emissions-Zone proposed in Tyneside, for example, will be mothballed after the current online consultation reveals little sympathy for its implementation. Several reasons come to mind. Firstly, the prospect of a £12.50 nation-wide congestion charge just seems ignorant: it fails to account for the fact that disposable household income, as of 2016, was £11,388 higher in Greater London than the North East – a gap which can only have widened since the EU referendum. Secondly, the charge seems to forget the existence of a blatant disparity in the cost of public transport between the North-East and the nation’s capital. For the latter, a congestion charge may be an inconvenience; for the former, it could threaten economic survival.

Maddeningly, in areas outside of London, municipal private bus companies can charge whatever they like (and do) – because they face little to no competition and are unaccountable to government. In 2014, The Progressive Policy Think Tank argued that deregulation was failing the poorest in society, with working people living in deprived regional areas relying more on taxis than any other income group because of prohibitively high bus fares. A congestion charge will hit them hard. This speaks to a wider trend: passenger journeys on buses outside of London are down 4.2% from the figures obtained in March 2005; while London’s are up 23.5%. Depressingly, there are more passenger journeys in London than in the rest of England combined.

With expensive fares and unreliable services prevailing everywhere outside of London, the government’s ‘clean air’ drive is going to exacerbate regional inaccessibility and isolate the country’s poorest households. Unleashed nearly 5 years ago, the recommendation put forward by The Progressive Policy Think Tank to ‘create regional transport bodies modelled on TfL at the level of city-regions and combined authorities’ has remained largely ignored. Bizarrely, for groups not entitled to concessionary passes living outside London, bus travel has become a luxury mode of transport.

Of course, eradicating pollution is essential – but placing the burden of this on the shoulders of those who can afford it least is not progressive, especially when there are no alternatives in place. To achieve ‘clean air’, the government must first commit itself to generating a comprehensive, national transport framework based on the model they reserve exclusively, and unjustifiably, for London alone.