Launching the UK Independence Party’s manifesto for London today, the party’s leader Nigel Farage admitted: “The difficulty with the Mayorship is that apart from transport the Mayor has very little power anywhere”.
Yet this isn’t immediately clear from UKIP’s manifesto – in which Mayoral candidate Lawrence Webb sets out a lengthy list of “fresh choices for London”.
How many of UKIP’s could the Mayor of London force through? FactCheck puts a selection to the test.
The vast majority of London’s parking spots are owned by the borough councils. And legally, the councils have to plough any money left over from parking (after costs, such as enforcement, have been deducted) back into roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects.
The Mayor couldn’t force councils to make the first 20 minutes of parking free, he would have to convince them to sign up to a scheme that would therefore ultimately hit their budget for infrastructure.
Westminster City Council, which owns the lion’s share of London’s parking spots, had a surplus of £32.4m from its parking spots last year. Of that, £17.3m went on highway and street maintenance and parking improvements, £9.4m was spent on fare concessions – including the freedom pass; a further £3.8m was spent on street works and lighting; £1.2m went on school transport and finally £600,000 was spent on traffic management projects.
If the council were to lose money on parking spaces, it would have to plug the gap in infrastructure from somewhere else in its budget.
Transport for London, which owns 59 commuter car parks at underground stations told FactCheck that 20 minutes free parking would amount to a drop-off and this is something already catered for.
As for the rest of UKIP’s parking plan, on Saturday nights parking is largely free after 6.30pm across London and on Sundays you can park on a single yellow line to avoid paying – so that’s a bit of an empty pledge.
The Treasury told FactCheck: “Only the Chancellor can set the VAT rate – but even if he wanted to put a reduced rate on beer and cider he wouldn’t be able to. The EU doesn’t allow us to put a reduced rate on alcoholic drinks.”
UKIP of course knows this. “Only the EU can change the VAT (on alcohol)”, a spokeswoman agreed. So why the pledge? “It’s a vision for what we’d like,” she told us.
The Department for Health confirmed to FactCheck that the London Mayor would not have the authority to lift the ban on smoking in pubs and clubs. A spokeswoman said: ““It (the law) can’t be changed on a regional basis. It would require an act of Parliament.”
UKIP admitted to FactCheck that it was “not something the Mayor could do”, but maintained that the idea was part of its Save the Pub campaign, adding that in the traditional English pub “most regulars are smokers”. The campaign claims that in Greater London alone more than 700 pubs have closed since the introduction of the smoking ban.
Again, only the Chancellor can set the rules on tax. Though the Treasury did admit that the UK is one of the few countries not to impose a tourist tax; in France for example, a small levy is added to tourists’ hotel bills.
UKIP explained to FactCheck that it would put donation boxes at all the tourist attractions asking for 25p. Yet museums already have donation boxes asking people to help fund their upkeep. Why would they want to collect money for Big Ben?
In fact it would be impossible for the Mayor to enforce, according to Mark Taylor, director of the Museums Association.
Mr Taylor told FactCheck: “The Mayor has no further jurisdiction than the Museum of London and possibly a few others – he has no remit on the Nationals. And certainly, the idea of using the money to do up Big Ben – when many museums need money to do up their own buildings – seems…interesting“.
Mr Webb told reporters at the manifesto launch today that the congestion charge is “nothing more than tax…(that) doesn’t achieve much at all”.
Since being introduced in 2003, TfL said the congestion charge has seen a “sustained reduction in traffic in central London of 27 per cent”. It has also led to a 16 per cent cut in CO2 emissions and an 8 per cent cut in noxious pollutants.
There has also been a six per cent increase in bus passengers during charging hours, and in the 2009/10 financial year the congestion charge raised £148m in net revenue. Legally this all has to be invested in improving transport in London. Scrap this; and you are £148m short of investment in infrastructure.
When FactCheck questioned UKIP over the points in its manifesto, the party told us that they were a vision of “what should be happening” in London.
While we accept that a manifesto is a declaration of aims or intent, we think the general public would expect it to be more than a pie-in-the-sky vision. After all, both Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone have been harangued by FactCheck for not backing up their election pledges, so why should UKIP’s Mr Webb be treated any differently?
The fact remains that of the UKIP aims we have looked into, three of them are impossible for the Mayor of London to enforce: the VAT changes, reversal of the smoking ban and the idea of a tourist tax.
And as for enforcing free parking and scrapping the congestion charge? The first relies on convincing borough councils to bring in changes that would see their budget for road improvements cut. The second idea would kill off net revenues of £150m which is money legally committed to be spent on infrastructure; and arguably increase traffic in central London by 27 per cent.
When the Metro, a London free sheet, asked Mr Webb this morning if UKIP could keep its promises, he told them: “No, not directly – but other candidates have made promises they can’t do.”
UKIP told us he was misquoted. Either way, when pushed Mr Webb admitted that some of his aims amounted to no more than “lobbying positions”.
By Emma Thelwell
For more FactChecks on London’s Mayoral contest click here.