The stay-home society

From congestion charging to terrorism scares to home-working, the message today is: don't go out.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Science & Tech

So the London congestion charging scheme works. So what? It doesn’t make it any better.

The congestion charging scheme, spawned by London mayor Ken Livingstone, came into effect on Monday 17 February. Despite predictions of chaos, gridlock and general all-round political unrest – issued primarily by Ken’s opponents in the Tory Party and the London Evening Standard – the roads were quiet, and lots of people managed to pay.

Okay, so a reported 10,000 people are facing heavy fines for non-payment on the day; okay, so it was the first day of the school half-term, which might be expected to reduce traffic numbers anyway. But despite some desperate protestations to the contrary – by the Tory Party and the London Evening Standard – the scheme has been widely hailed as a success. Livingstone rubs his hands with glee, and already there are discussions about extending the scheme to other UK cities.

But the problem with congestion charging was never that the scheme would not work. It was that this is a thoroughly unimaginative, mean-spirited and even, dare I say, anti-human idea. The very notion that a good solution to having lots of cars on the road is to stop people from using them sums up the miserablist state of politics today – and the fact that this notion goes largely unchallenged indicates how low our expectations have become.

Congestion charging always appeared to me as a solution in search of a problem. As Edmund King points out elsewhere on spiked, whatever the reasons for congestion in London, it’s not that we have more cars: official figures show that car commuting to central London in morning peak time has fallen by more than 20 percent in the past 10 years (See Driven to distraction).

Speaking as a non-transport expert, every time I have braved it into London in the morning by car, I’ve sat for hours in traffic jams on suburban main roads, and flown through what is now the congestion zone. When so many features of London life and transport are unpleasant and difficult, why focus on the Marylebone Road?

A cynic might say that a hi-tech political stunt like congestion charging is a damn sight easier to pull off than, say, running more trains on the London Underground. He might also point out that Livingstone, being London mayor, has relatively little power to do much more than fail to ban people from feeding pigeons in Westminster and fail to organise New Year celebrations. In both these things, the cynic has a point. But the widespread acceptance of congestion charging as an idea shows that Livingstone is feeding off a wider mood: a mood that views large numbers of people as a problem, and tacitly encourages us to stay at home.

Over the past few months, everything from the weather to concerns about the state of the grass in the royal parks has been used to push the ‘stay put’ imperative. A couple of centimetres of snow, and people are advised only to travel ‘if necessary’ (as if anybody chooses to drive or take the Tube to work for fun). When the trains and Tubes break down at the same time as the roads get blocked, it becomes a fait accompli – we told you not to go out! Now look what’s happened!

Any notion that the Highways Agency and the train operators are obliged to make things work in adverse weather conditions (and we’re not talking snowbound Washington DC here) goes out the window – the problem, it seems, is that people insist on travelling.

UK culture secretary Tessa Jowell tried to ban London’s anti-war march, citing the state of the grass in Hyde Park and the subsequent dangers that the mud would pose to protestors, before backtracking in a pique of embarrassment (See On the defensive by Ed Barrett ). A stand-off between the huge annual Glastonbury festival and Mendip council, which was refusing to license the festival for 2003, has just ended – after Glastonbury promised to boost security even more than usual (1). London’s failure to organise any New Year celebrations this year was deliberately designed to keep the people away. As the mayor’s office put it: ‘New Year’s Eve is not an event, it is a public order problem.’ (2)

Following a year of skyrocketing house prices in the UK’s capital, there is much hand-wringing about how much a problem it is that all these people want to live here, and how they could be encouraged to live elsewhere (preferably, on the outskirts of one of the newly ‘regenerated’ cities, which have little more going for them than culture – and not even very much of that).

Failing that, we could always use the great advances in IT to promote home-working, where people could tap away in their lonely bedrooms somewhere Up North, instead of contributing to congestion by living in London and coming to work. Or we could encourage the nation’s twentysomethings to forget about independent lives and careers, and keep doing what they are increasingly doing anyway – living with mum and dad. And while we’re on the subject of demographic determinism, let’s not even mention the asylum seekers….

What with terrorism and all that, going abroad is apparently dodgy – possibly just as well, so far as green campaigners are concerned, because it helps to reduce the congestion in the skies that all these wonderful cheap flights apparently contribute to. Of course, the logical conclusion of fearing potential attacks anywhere, by anyone, is that people shouldn’t really go anywhere where strangers are likely to be – and indeed, that seems to be the official message promoted across the pond in Washington DC, where people are being advised to seal themselves in airtight rooms with kids, clothes and ‘power bars’ (see Sealing anxiety inside, by Helen Searls).

All in all, the notion that it’s good to stay put is rather fashionable today. It suits the character of our atomised times, in which other people are viewed with suspicion, and the big bad world outside is assumed to be fraught with danger. And it suits the level of political expectations that mobility is viewed as an optional extra, rather than – as it should be, in a modern, dynamic society – an absolute necessity. So it’s no wonder that the congestion charge, while not especially popular, has generally been accepted as a transport solution. Improving the roads is apparently beyond the capability of today’s society, so we’ll just have to stop those pesky people from using them.

How bloody depressing all this is. Particularly when you consider that the main thing London has going for it is the people. Yes, you can get your job, your house, and your bit of culture somewhere north of Watford Gap – and your life might even be cheaper, easier and pleasanter in rush hour. But nowhere else in the UK will you get that vibrant mass of people who just want to be at the centre of things, who cope with the crap of the capital because they can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Our mayor thinks we are the problem – just above pigeons, in fact, in the public order scheme of things. But while he’s playing lollipop lady in Trafalgar Square, the rest of us will carry on living.

Read on:

Driven to distraction, by Edmund King

Nothing goes, by Jennie Bristow

For whom the road tolls, by Austin Williams

(1) Glastonbury gets festival green light, Guardian, 18 February 2003

(2) London will party next year, London Evening Standard, 2 January 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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