CHURCHES and faith organisations situated within London’s Congestion Charge zone have appealed to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, for some exemption from changes to the charge: it has been increased by 30 per cent to £15 and is now also payable on Sundays and week-nights (News, 26 June).
The move will have a huge impact on churches already facing financial challenges, argues the Revd Jonathan Evens, an Assistant Curate of St Martin-in-the-Fields, who chairs Churches Together in Westminster. “Congregations are at the centre of church life, and central London churches are gathered congregations, often travelling long distances,” he said on Tuesday.
“The extension to the charge to cover weekends and evenings is obviously going to push up costs for our congregations, and that might well have an effect on overall numbers. Obviously, we are at a time where people aren’t travelling in to services anyway in the main; so it is going to make the process of recovery more difficult.
“But we’re also pointing out to the Mayor that those congregations support hugely significant programmes of social action and cultural programming during the week, and, if the congregations aren’t there to sustain those churches, then these are also under threat.” Since everything for exhibitions and concerts, or food and supplies for the homeless, needed to be transported in, the cost of delivering those programmes would also rise, Mr Evens said.
The changes have been imposed as a condition of the Government’s £1.6-billion bail-out of Transport for London (TfL), as traffic levels continue to grow in the city. Mr Evens emphasised: “We fully understand why it’s being done, as a way both of helping TfL recover its position and also for the environmental benefits that ensue from lower vehicle use, and all of us — churches, synagogues, mosques — support those aims.
“But we have been pointing out that what we do will come under some threat at a time when all churches, like all charities and businesses, are facing huge unexpected financial pressures.”
Large numbers of the congregations would use public transport to come in to the city, but Sunday services were more infrequent, and started later in the day, and there were many for whom access was difficult. Minicabs were also subject to the charge.
“We do not feel we are being considered,” Mr Evens said. Amid widespread criticism of the lack of advance information about the five-day consultation period, the Conservative candidate for London Mayor, Shaun Bailey, has described the Mayor’s action as “piecemeal and unplanned”. It was, he said, a “worship tax”.
The Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Canon Sam Wells, and the Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, the Revd Lucy Winkett, spoke on the Radio 4 Sunday programme of the further impact of the new charge on the ability to generate income. St Martin’s needed to find £500,000 that business before the lockdown had been able to provide, while, at St James’s, lost income from the established market of independent traders in the courtyard had put the church in a “very, very difficult situation”. A consultation process that was under way involved 125 staff.
Letters have been sent to the Mayor from church and faith organisations, denominations, individual churches, and individuals, but, as of Tuesday, none of them had received a response.
“We are essentially asking for a meeting to raise our concerns with the Mayor and his team to find a way forward. At the moment, that doesn’t seem to be on the table at all,” Mr Evens concluded.
A spokesperson for the Mayor of London said: “The Government was absolutely clear that TfL must bring forward proposals to widen the level and scope of the Congestion Charge.
“The Mayor will respond to all communities who have raised concerns, including those from faith communities, to explain the temporary changes and options available to members of their community, including any relevant discounts and exemptions such as the Blue Badge and Cleaner Vehicle Discount. People living in the zone who need to drive are now able to make new applications for the residents’ discount before the extended deadline of 1 August.”