Home Estate Planning Off-peak Fridays sound fun, but Londoners will end up footing the bill

Off-peak Fridays sound fun, but Londoners will end up footing the bill

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The mayor’s reckless promise of lower fare Fridays is a sign of more disingenuous politicking to come, writes John Oxley

While Westminster talks about when a general election might be, the London mayoral contest is speeding towards us. There are now just three months until the capital goes to the polls and the campaigning is kicking up a gear – with the giveaways and campaign pledges starting to emerge. With the race far from competitive, however, these campaign time bungs could just end up costing Londoners in the long run.

Incumbent and frontrunner Sadiq Khan has already unveiled two eye-catching pledges. First came a year-long freeze on pay-as-you-go fares for public transport, handily teed up to cover the election period. Then came a more innovative pledge to make Fridays ‘Off Peak’ only for the next three months. It’s pitched as a plan to woo commuters back from working from home and to re-establish Fridays as the new Thursdays. As a three-month pilot, it’s also fairly nakedly timed as a vote winner.

You can’t doubt Khan’s political instincts. Tube prices are one of the real giveaways a London mayor can offer, and it’s shrewd to pitch this as a boost for business and commuters in a cost-of-living crisis. Yet once the election is done with it is Londoners who will end up paying the price of this largesse.

Fares are the major source of income for London’s transport. When they are cut, it means later consequences for the Transport for London (TfL) budget – either with bumper rises in subsequent years, or shaving money off future investments. This is now more true than ever, with London’s transport still suffering from the huge drop in income during the Covid lockdowns, and the longer reduction in demand as more of us moved to working from home.

This has been compounded with central government making Khan fight hard for any top-up funds from general taxation. In order to reach financial sustainability, TfL has already cut £500m from this year’s budget. Fare cuts will make this harder to top up in future meaning long-term degradation of the service – with shoddier trains, degraded tracks and increased closures down the line. On top of this, the flashy new announcements will be pushed with a new round of TfL funded advertising.

It’s easy, but irresponsible, politics to try to sway voters with such short-term bungs. This is especially true when the contest seems already over. Recent polls put Khan around 25 points ahead of Conservative candidate Susan Hall. With Labour riding high nationally, and the capital generally being to the left of the country, it would take a major shift in opinion for Khan to drop into second. He’s hampering London’s future transport investment for a political edge he is unlikely to need. That these latest giveaways come alongside another round of strikes is striking.

Khan is not the only one dealing in giveaways. Hall has made an overture to outer London by announcing she would scrap the Ulez extension, another source of funds for TfL. On a national level, the Tories started this year with a cut to National Insurance, and will likely slash more taxes in the run-up to the general election. There’s almost no getting away from this easy retail politics.

Voters, though, should recognise that these moves come with other costs. Just as someone always has to pay for government spending, fare and tax cuts necessitate a drop in spending somewhere. The only hope to avoid politicians reaching for easy sops is for voters to become wiser about them, and be clear of the drawbacks when offered seductive inducements. Discerning voters should look beyond a springtime of cheap fares and think of the delays such discounts could incur in 2026.

John Oxley is associate fellow at Bright Blue

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