Congestion charge success silences critics

Armageddon never happened last week. The apparent success of the congestion charge in reducing traffic in central London left a lot of egg on the faces of its opponents, notably the Fleet Street editors who saw its introduction as an affront on civil liberties worse Saddam Hussein’s penchant for hanging opponents.

Sure there were the inevitable cock-ups but the real message of a wonderfully peaceful few days on London’s streets goes far beyond petty rows over administration, boundaries and enforcement. The counsel of despair over transport policy, encapsulated by Transport Secretary Alistair Darling’s view that congestion is a necessary price for economic growth, has been shown to be misplaced.

Ken Livingstone’s brave experiment has demonstrated that our towns and cities can become far more pleasant through the simple expedient of no longer providing road space for free. This is a logic which transport experts and economics have long recognised but no politician has, until now, dared to act on this basic piece of common sense.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of what happened in London last week. Forget the arguments over the unlucky few who may be wrongly fined or the greater number who dodge the scheme by driving in unregistered cars. Even if the enormous improvement to London’s environment is not sustained over the next few weeks as more people decide to fork out for the congestion charge, the very fact that the city had a blissful few days will have a permanent impact on transport policy both in Britain and abroad. It revives the notion that transport policy can make a difference and, possibly more important, that our towns and cities can be made liveable by taming the car and restricting its use.

This radical message has, again, been ignored by the vast majority of the agenda-driven media which has only seen the wood for the trees and which has gone to desperate lengths to find something wrong with what was, in truth, an unequivocal success for Livingstone and his team.

Even the strongest argument of the opponents of the charge – that it is a regressive tax which disproportionately affects the poor – does not hold water. Several commentators, like Simon Jenkins, have suggested that their ability to drive freely through London has been gained on the backs of the unfortunates who have been consigned, literally, to the underground as they can no longer afford to drive. But that is a ridiculous notion. Road space in London is a scarce resource that is now, for the first time, being allocated through the market instead of the Stalinist notion of queuing. Surely Mr Jenkins is not suggesting that poorer people should have the right to live in Mayfair whatever the cost? We have been told for decades that the market is the right allocation mechanism for resources, and so be it.

Moreover, most poor people do not drive in central London anyway and the money being raised through the scheme will improve the buses which they use. When the Tory party transport spokesman, Tim Collins, criticised the charge as regressive, it was clear that straws were being clutched given his party’s past record on helping the poor.

Indeed, the other pleasing aspect this week has been watching the disarray of the opponents of the charge. Steve Norris, the Tory mayoral candidate and previously a supporter of the concept of charging, misread the zeitgeist and foolishly committed himself to abolishing the charge even before its implementation, something he may well regret or even quietly ditch.

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