Congestion charge three years on

After three years of the congestion charge, it is difficult to remember the enormous fuss that attended its introduction. There were predictions of chaos, talk of mass non-payment campaigns and suggestions that the whole economy of central London would be wrecked. But none of that has happened.

Instead, the charge is so well entrenched that there was remarkably little dissent when Ken Livingstone cheekily hiked it to £8 last year. We hear the odd outburst like Madonna’s yesterday, but for the most part the charge is part of the capital’s furniture. Yet three years in, the continued existence of the charge and its extension to West London raise a more difficult question: where does Livingstone’s bold experiment go next?

For the Mayor is intent on extending the charge westward, a far more controversial move than its original introduction. It will bring in very little extra revenue: costing an estimated £143 million just to set up, its projected revenue is only £10 million a year. Once you factor in the sorts of shortfalls in revenue between predictions and actual operation that have hit the existing zone, this is a scheme that could take a very long time to pay for itself.

Moreover it affects a largely residential area that has nothing like the congestion problems of the original zone. It is unpopular: the Mayor has already had to ride roughshod over the results of his own consultation on the scheme.

So why is he so set on it? Even the new Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, appears lukewarm. But as the justifications of reducing congestion and making money start to look more and more threadbare, Transport for London is running out of excuses for Livingstone’s latest pet project. Yet there remains one larger rationale.

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has announced plans to help local authorities bring in road pricing schemes – where everyone pays for the amount they use their car or lorry – over the next ten years. If the Government eventually moves towards a system of road pricing for the whole of the UK, then London would effectively stand to lose oput, the money its road users pay being sucked up by the Treasury and redistributed elsewhere.

This, the argument runs, is why the Mayor must push ahead with new c-charge areas – to have a claim on the cash once a national scheme is up an running.

Londoners have to deal with the costs of getting around today, not in ten years’ time. Their patience with such an intricate long-term strategy will be limited. But in any case, the argument does not stack up.

Despite the widespread acceptance that the congestion charge has had beneficial environmental effects, the most obvious question is why have there been no imitators – and why there are none on the horizon. Apart from the odd bridge, the M6 relief road and a street in Durham, motorists are still free to travel up and down the UK’s ever-more-congested roads without paying any extra for the privilege.

If it has not proved possible for anyone to introduce any significant charging scheme in the past three years, how does Mr Darling think that it is realistic to have a national scheme within ten?

The issue is not about technology. I recently went to Germany, where every lorry pays a few cents for each kilometre travelled on the country’s autobahns. Introduced in January 2005, the scheme raised 3 billion Euros last year and after a few teething problems is running efficiently, using the global positioning satellite system. The vast majority of trucks carry on-board units that enable automatic payment. The developers of the system are convinced that it could be applied to the UK.

Sure, there would have to be a lead time while the technology is selected and tested, but Darling’s plan is all talk and no action. The scheme has always been ten years ahead – beyond the time when any of today’s politicians will ever be held to account.

Though Darling will not admit it, the problem is a political one. The reason why Londoners broadly accept the charge is that most travel into central London by public transport and even if they own a car, are not daft enough to crawl down Piccadilly or along the Strand for fun. The rest of the country is different – people often have little alternative to traveling by car and so resistance will be much greater.

The key issue will be over whether any charge will be an additional tax or whether it will replace existing ones like road tax. While at first Darling attempted to appease the motoring lobby by suggesting that road pricing would be “revenue neutral” cancelling out existing taxes, more recently his number two, Stephen Ladyman, has intimated this will not be the case.

But paying extra makes such plans even more controversial. Look at what happened in the recent Dunfermline by-election. The bridge which connects the region with Edinburgh is rusting away and there is a proposal to increase the toll to £4 in order to pay for a new one. In a vain attempt to appease voters, Gordon Brown announced that the proposal would be scrapped.

Does this sound like a man eager to impose a nationwide road pricing scheme? And even if he did, would he meekly hand back a large share of the takings to London’s mayor? All of this leaves London in a rather odd situation. Londoners and the capital’s visitors are the only ones who are having to pay an extra tax which, it seems, will never be imposed on the rest of the country. And yet while a national road pricing scheme remains as politically distant as ever, it now appears to be a key rationale for extending the congestion charge westward.

Perhaps Peter Hendy will get his guvnor to see sense. Livingstone scored a bold success with the original c-charge. Now he can move on to other things. The Mayor’s powers look set to be expanded to planning and other areas. Those and other aspects of London’s troubled transport system should now be his aim. But forget extending the charge to the west or anywhere else. It doesn’t make sense now, and it probably never will.

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