Congestion charge takes circuitous route with mixed reviews to reach its decade


London Letter:Ten years ago, the congestion charge in central London was introduced in the face of fevered warnings that it would “cause complete gridlock” or “destroy” the city’s commercial heart.

Success, however, can be hard to define. Traffic has fallen, by about 20 per cent according to some counts, although traffic speeds for those who are left are now worse than they were in 2003.

Equally, the charge is extremely expensive to collect. In 2011-12, the charge – which began with a £5 charge, rising to £8 a day in 2005 and now standing at £10 – raised £280 million. However technology and administration consumes nearly a third of that.

The public face of the change was Ken Livingstone, who had successfully run as an independent in the 2000 mayoral race after Labour had refused to see him carry the party’s flag.

New Labour, whose candidate, former health secretary Frank Dobson, was persuaded by Tony Blair to run, campaigned against the charge, “New Labour, new London, no congestion charge,” its posters said.

The irony of New Labour’s position was not lost on some, since the charge flowed from proposals accepted five years before by Labour to introduce local road charging.

The congestion charge zone is now back within its original boundaries – eight square miles with 174 entries and exits monitored by number-recognition cameras, following the decision by mayor Boris Johnson to reverse Livingstone’s expansion into West London in January 2011.

Trucks and delivery van drivers, however, do want change. Dubbing it a “tax on deliveries”, the Freight Transport Association has urged Transport for London (TfL) to give them free passes, if only outside of the morning and evening rush hours.

“Its focus should be to deter discretionary or non-essential journeys where there is an option to choose an alternative time or to use public transport,” says association spokeswoman Natalie Chapman.

Smithfield market

However, TfL, which charges vehicles that pass its cameras between 7am and 6.30pm, is not listening, saying the “charge is not a tax on businesses and the vast majority of businesses” accept that.

The Smithfield market is usually a good place for forthright opinions. On the congestion charge, they are vocal. “It is a disaster, it’s hit expansion, but it isn’t going to go away,” says one stallholder.

In 2009, 31,000 people failed to pay; the figure jumped significantly to 52,000 the following year before dropping back to 34,000 last year. Bailiffs were called 28,000 times last year to enforce debts.

Livingstone, still nursing the wounds left by his defeat by Johnson last year, was unusually restrained this week when called on to opine on his highest-profile legacy.

“I didn’t introduce it because I wanted to. Big business told me that they would leave London if we didn’t do something about congestion,” he said.

Ironically, Livingstone, a left- wing politician, had followed ideas laid down 60 years before by the most right-wing of economists, Milton Friedman, whose monetarist writings had provided Margaret Thatcher’s political foundations.

In his memoir, Livingstone notes that the government of Conservative prime minister Harold MacMillan had considered charging in 1964, while the only systems in place internationally a decade ago were in smaller, more modern cities.

Eventually, he over-ruled doubters, with one aide commenting dryly: “It’s lonely at the top.” Livingstone, believing that he was politically dead if it went wrong, said he was “down for a week”.

Livingstone’s position was not helped by a changing of the guard at the helm of the Evening Standard, with the departure of Max Hastings, who supported the idea, as editor and his replacement by one who dubbed his plan as “an outdated lunacy”.

Pollution levels

The congestion charge, however, has done little for London’s pollution levels: Londoners daily breathe in 14.1 micrograms of tiny particles called PM2.5s – so called because they are 2.5 micrometres in width and 30 times smaller than a human hair – which are produced by traffic, industry and power-stations.

Having reviewed over 150,000 patients for nearly four years in England and Wales, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine researchers estimates that such pollution increases deaths from heart attacks in patients who had previously been in hospital by one-eighth.

Two years ago, researchers from King’s College London found little evidence that charging had done anything to help air quality in London: it was, they said, simply too small.

Motorists will not agree. Many others will simply wonder why anyone would want to drive in central London.