As coronavirus sends Transport for London’s revenues plummeting, is it time to look for better ways to fund London’s transport system?
Strange days, when a transport authority claims an 80 to 90 per cent drop in passenger numbers as a success, as Transport for London’s (TfL) Mike Brown did on Thursday. It’s a success which could take a £1 billion bite out of TfL’s annual income over just the next three months (together with the loss of congestion charging revenue) – at a time when Crossrail delays were already hitting the balance sheet (and will do so even more while works are at a standstill).
Making up that shortfall will be one of a million urgent negotiations over coming months (and given ministerial demands to keep the Tube and buses running, the Treasury will surely have to pay a fair share), but it also prompts a more fundamental question – is it right that the operation of London’s transport system is so heavily dependent on fares and other user charges?
As Table 1 below shows, fares account for about 72 per cent of TfL’s revenues, with a further four per cent coming from congestion charging. The rest is made up of other commercial revenues, plus just over £1 billion (15 per cent of the total) coming from taxes – mainly retained business rates, with smaller amounts from general taxation and mayoral council tax.
Table 1: London transport revenue sources
|Millions||Transport for London (2020/21)|
|Media and rental||£275||4%|
|Retained business rates||£969||14%|
But is that the right balance? Is transport a product to be bought by individual customers, or is it an urban service, something that is provided as much to the city as a whole as it is to individual passengers? Cities rely on mass transit just as tall buildings rely on lifts. Without transport systems that can move millions every day as efficiently as possible, cities grind to a halt – or hollow out as corporations flee congestion. In both cases, reliance on private cars rises, with all the pollution that entails.
Supporting mass transit is therefore in the interests of businesses, of the environment and of the city as a whole – whether or not individual citizens use the system, they rely to some extent on other people being able to move around the city (and on roads being kept free for freight). So there is a case for public sector support, of the system as a whole and for the people who cannot afford to pay full price.
But relying so heavily on passenger revenues does not just make TfL vulnerable to events such as the current crisis, but also makes revenue dependent on mass transit systems that are themselves under strain. To address those pressures and reduce carbon impacts, the Mayor and TfL have committed to promote ‘active travel’ (walking and cycling), but it is only public transport (and congestion charging) that makes money. With some of the highest fares in the world, TfL’s commercial and strategic interests are not well aligned.
It’s not always been this way. The reliance on passenger revenues is a relatively new phenomenon: as recently as 2010/11, more than 50 per cent of TfL’s revenues were in the form of a grant from central government.
And it’s not the way other cities operate either. Comparisons are imprecise and no city is perfect, but New York and Paris both have very different funding models (Tables 2 and 3 below). Both cities have some subsidy from different tiers of government – around eight per cent of the NY total, and 18 per cent in Paris (or rather the larger region of Île de France).
Table 2: New York transport revenue sources
|Millions||Metropolitan Transport Authority (2018)|
|Media, rental etc||$685||4%|
|Mortgage and property taxes||$1,002||7%|
|City and state subsidies||$1,200||8%|
|Millions||Île de France Mobilités (2017)|
|Media, fines etc||€249||2%|
|Fuel taxes (TICPE)||€94||1%|
|Payroll tax (VT)||€4,238||42%|
Both cities also draw some revenue from taxes on petrol and diesel: 15 per cent in New York compared to just one per cent in Paris. In the UK, Fuel Duty and Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) are collected and retained nationally, with VED ringfenced for road maintenance outside London. Allocating London its share would give the city around £500 million extra per annum, but both Fuel Duty and VED are set to decline in coming years, as more efficient vehicles proliferate. Centre for London has argued for a comprehensive approach to road user charging, rather than tethering London’s transport to an eroding tax base.
New York draws another seven per cent of its revenues from taxes on mortgages and property transactions, but both comparator cities also rely heavily on payroll taxes. In New York, employers pay from 0.11 to 0.34 per cent of payroll costs (depending on payroll size); in Île de France, rates range from 1.4 to 2.6 per cent (depending on location).
The sums generated by these business taxes are higher than retained business rates in London, much higher in the case of Paris, and could be argued to relate more directly to how far companies rely on the public transport network to enable employees (and customers) to travel across the city. Payroll taxes may not be the right answer for London, though a devolved alternative to business rates is long overdue, but the current crisis should prompt longer-term thinking about the right mix of taxes for a 21st century transport system.
Seeking higher government grants is one way to reflect the civic value of London’s transport system, but seems likely to have limited mileage at a time of regional rebalancing (and persistent allegations that London already receives more than its share of transport funding). Even Paris draws less than 20 per cent of its funding from national, regional and local subsidies.
London should seek devolution to enable innovation, not a squabble about regional allocation. How much should businesses and residents pay for the infrastructure that keeps the city running? Should tourists and other visitors pay through a hotel tax? Should taxis and minicabs, and new arrivals such as electric bike and scooter companies, pay more for their use of London roads?
When London’s economy and civic life begin to defrost, and the Tube once again feels the – once tiresome but now longed-for – strain of urban rush hours, it will be time to think about who pays what for the hundreds of millions of journeys that take place in London every year.