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The oil industry and destruction of public transport

4Nov00 - Comments on Ken's attack on oil companies during 'fuel crisis' - Oil barons chuckle as greens take on fuel protestors

Ken Livingstone comments on Fares Fair - BBC Radio 5 - 26th Jan 1999

Blueprint for a Green London

Tony Gosling

In 1981 the newly elected Labour Greater London Council began implementing a series of transport commitments that very nearly made London the environmental jewel of Europe.

Fares Fair - Free Public Transport for London

Labour leader, Ken Livingstone, and his transport chair Dave Wetzel's 'Fares Fair' initiative helped them win the 1981 GLC election. They got straight to it, cutting all bus and underground fares by a third, using a small increase in the 'rates' tax of every householder in London to pay for it.

Public transport in London had received its biggest ever political boost. The GLC were taking the first steps in their plan for free public transport for Londoners.

Side by side with their 'Just the Ticket' initiative the GLC also introduced the now indispensable travelcard, giving London's travelling public daily or weekly unlimited intermodal travel for the first time ever.  The 'Travelcard' gave holders access to buses and the underground system. British Rail trains were added with the 'Capitalcard'. 

The move was based on the reasoning that cars were receiving disproportionate subsidy from central government compared to the congestion they cause.  Public transport was overpriced but under-resourced, so it needed local government support to help it compete with private cars.

Practically this meant London Transport and the GLC had to put bums on empty seats.

A long-term plan

People's travelling habits take a long time to change. If bus fares go down we're not going to give up the car overnight, if at all, but even during Fares Fair's first year it was a roaring success.  Millions of Londoners chose to leave their cars at home and, since London is the hub of the national public transport network, the idea looked set to spread across the nation.

Details of the scheme were masterminded by Sir Peter Maesfield, Chair of London Transport Executive, who proudly watched passengers flocking to the tubes and the buses in their droves.  His off-peak fare scheme meant that the overall passenger load was spread, poorer passengers travelling when buses and trains would have plenty of spare capacity.

Fares Fair threatened the interests of very powerful people

Behind the scenes though all was not well. The roads lobby: oil companies, haulage industry, car and lorry manufacturers, motoring organisations, tire companies etc. shuddered at the increasingly realistic possibility of free public transport for London.  Their interests were under serious threat.

So the travelling public's enthusiasm for the scheme was matched only by the panic in the ivory towers of industry. Followed automatically by the wrath of right-wing politicians and the tabloid press.  Suddenly every other headline warned the public to beware the profligate evils of 'Red Ken' Livingstone.

The Tories rallying cry:  'get Red Ken!'

There were a few exceptions, Croydon's Tory leader, Peter Bowness, supported Fares Fair, but the overwhelming majority of Tories fought to out-do each other in support of their corporate backers.

Michael Hesletine at the Department of the Environment immediately clawed back £119million of the GLC's transport grant and Norman Fowler at the Department of Transport creamed £20million off the GLC's train subsidy.

On top of this the previous Tory GLC administration under Horace Cutler had left Livingstone with a £26million deficit which he was determined to clear.  These acts of political spoiling made the scheme less financially viable than it should have been.  Yet still it looked like it could continue to work and the GLC pressed ahead.

But the Tories has one final trick up their sleeve.

Peter Bowness's neighbour, Dennis Barkway, and Bromley Council's Tories, thought they might stop the GLC in the courts. Because Fowler had temporarily scuppered GLC plans to include British Rail in Fares Fair, ratepayers in areas with BR rather than underground services, like Bromley, would only be able to take advantage of the resulting reduction of bus fares, not underground.  Fare's Fair is unfair on Bromley, Barkway might have protested.

Over lunch in the 'Bird in Hand' pub Gravel Road, one Sunday in July 1981 Barkway and the Bromley wreckers first resolved to stop Fares Fair.  Barkway received the nod from Council solicitor Richard Pugh and a special committee was set up to mastermind the legal challenge, with cllrs. Fred David, Philip Jones and Simon Randall joining Barkway.  

'Vandals In Ermine' (Dave Wetzel)

The case began at the divisional court on October 28th 1981. Acknowledging that the proposal had been a central plank in Labour's election victory Mr. Justice McNeill gave judgment saying "these things must be decided in the hustings".  He stressed the importance of separating Politics from the Judiciary and asserted that the law must never be used for political ends.  Lord Justice Dunn and Mr. Justice Phillips dismissed the case on November 3rd with costs paid by the council.

At this stage the council had could already be accused of wasting ratepayers money on anti-social court action.  How then did they feel confident enough to take the case to appeal, knowing that costs here could top £200,000.

The appeal was heard swiftly. On November 10th Lord Justice Oliver and Lord Justice Watkins ruled the fares cut and the supplementary rate unlawful.  The final judgment would have to be the house of lords.

Law Lords take London for a ride

Lord Diplock had this to say in his judgment highly critical of the GLC. "A local authority owes a fiduciary duty to the ratepayers from whom it obtains moneys needed to carry out its statutory functions, and this includes a duty not to expend those moneys thriftlessly but to deploy the full financial resources available to it to the best advantage".

'Fiduciary Duty' is the duty to spend money wisely.  Bromley's case was won on a premise that proved to be false, that the small increase in rates was a waste of public money.  He ruled that Fares Fair was inconsistent with business principles ignoring the fact that when central government claw-backs were taken into account it was paying for itself.

John Carvel's book 'Citizen Ken' goes into graphic detail on the case.  Carvel mentions another judge on this case in the Lords, the notorious 82 year old Master of the Rolls.

Denning said that the majority on the GLC had decided to honour their election promise 'come what may', even after they had been told it would injure taxpayers more seriously than they had originally realized (before Hesletine's grant penalties were known). A manifesto issued by a political party in order to get votes was not to be regarded as gospel. It was not a covenant, Denning said.  'Many electors did not vote for the manifesto, they voted for the party.  When a party was returned to power it should consider what it was best to do, and what was practical and fair.'

The Law Lords' announcement, on December 17th 1981 was unanimous.  It put a stop to Fares Fair, the success of which, Livingstone maintains, was the primary reason for Margaret Thatcher's subsequent abolition of the GLC.

After the Lords' ruling Thatcher's Tory government introduced the 1984 London Regional Transport Act to tighten the financial reins on London Transport and make sure the fare cutting scheme could never happen again.

Some disturbing figures have come to light since. In 1982 car use in London dropped by 10%.  An extra £48m fare revenue came in and tube usage went up 44%, bus usage rose by 14%. These were the greatest increases in the 52 year history of London Transport.  A survey done by Fieldwork International revealed that 71% of Londoners strongly felt that subsidised public transport benefited London. Even the governments own cost-benefit analysis showed the importance of investing in Public Transport when the full cost to the community was considered.

The toll of deaths and injuries on the roads resumes

Car CrashIn the following financial year London ratepayers' contribution to public transport rose 35% from £208m to £281m, though reducing the cost to the public had been Diplock's purpose in ruling Fares Fair illegal.  Predictably ticket prices doubled, and car journeys rocketed, there were an extra 6,000 serious accidents a year on London's roads and 1253 London Transport jobs were lost.

Once Bromley's Tory Council had helped re-impose crawling transport misery on London, their friends at Westminster sealed Londoners' fate by dismantling the Greater London Council.  

Ex-Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath was bitterly opposed to abolition of London's directly elected body and called it "the greatest piece of gerrymandering for the past 150 years".  Three-quarters of the GLC's budget was passed to quangos and other non-elected bodies.

Today's indispensable Travelcard - Just The Ticket

The lasting benefit of the GLC's public transport policy was their 'Just The Ticket' scheme. Though Norman Fowler did his best to stop rail travel being included, the GLC successfully introduced first the 'Travelcard' for the buses and underground and finally, in January 1985, the 'Capitalcard' (to confuse things now called a Travelcard!) which included BR train travel in the price.  

For many Londeners their now indispensable Travelcard is a wistful reminder of the days back in the early eighties when every parent's dream of safer streets, cleaner air and good value transport nearly came true.

See the London Buses 1980's history pages here

Oil barons chuckle as greens take on fuel protestors - 4Nov00

This fuel 'crisis' has been, as Ken Livingstone rightly said two months ago, totally orchestrated by the big three global oil companies. (Shell, BP and Exxon).

They want the people to put pressure on the government to reduce tax on fuel so they can make even bigger profits.

A lot of environmentalists have been saying fuel prices should be even higher to stop people using cars, this is naive in the extreme! People don't use cars because fuel is too cheap but because public transport is too expensive.

Since the sixties buses, trams and trains have been closed down or made extremely expensive to FORCE people to become dependant on cars and massively boost consumption of and dependence on the oil companies, to boost consumption.

Don't blame the protestors. In some cases the recent rise in fuel prices means companies and small one-man bands that are dependant on vehicles are now running at a loss. It is simply not good enough for environmentalists to say - 'told you so' because many people who are dependant on their vehicles have been forced into that position as public transport has been withdrawn or made impossibly expensive. We mustn't forget social considerations when moaning about dependance on cars. Many people truly have no public transport alternative any more.

If the rail fare from Bristol to Oxford, for example, was cheaper than the cost of the fuel to drive far more people would take the train. Problem is over expensive public transport and profiteering privatised bus and rail companies. What with the profiteering oil companies for most people there's no way out.

Protesting truckers and motorists are quite right to fight back against the hike in fuel prices. And they are targeting the oil companies more as they learn about how the industry works.

The oil companies have been clever diverting public anger onto the government whilst making record profits from their control of oil prices - blaming the world market price which they conveniently forget they control.

Last week Shell announced an 80% rise in first quarter profits. Yes that's 80%!!!!

They're not messing about these oil monopolists, they're going for the mega big bucks and their PR departments are much happier when it is made out to be a fight between the people and the government about prices over which they have no control. Needless to say this is bollox!

Even the smaller oil companies have been blockading the big boys' distribution terminals because they're being forced out of business. That action by an independant tanker drivers firm in Liverpool 10 days ago was only reported on one radio news bulletin then dropped. So don't be too suprised if you didn't hear about it.

We should be demanding a reduction of oil company profits side by side with the fuel protestors and a subsequent reduction in fuel prices AS WELL AS realistic public transport fares to reduce dependance on the car long term.

As a regular rail passenger I am disgusted to see trains running around outside the rush hours almost empty - when I'm the only person in a carriage I feel as if the train has been put on specially for me - it's criminal!

If the train operators were penalised for this you'd soon see fares come down and less cars on the road.

Ken Livingstone comments on Fares Fair - BBC Radio 5 - 26th Jan 1999

"If we 'd had the freedom to decide: should we cut the fares, or spend more on investment, we most probably would have spent more on investment; but that was a central government decision.  The government took control of our capital program.  The only thing we could do was cut the fares.

"I actually said we would double the rates. The average family was paying one pound a week, and I said we were going to put it up to two pounds a week and we're going to cut the fares.  We actually carried out our promise, and we ended up, in our last two years, so much more money came in in fares, we were able to cut the rates in those last two years


Livingstone, Ken, "If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it", Collins, 1987, ISBN 00 021777 06

Carvel, John, 'Citizen Ken', Hogarth, 1987, ISBN 070120768X

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