Nick Goulding: No time for a charge increase

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Indy Lifestyle Online

However words need to be matched with deed. Public proclamations will not, on their own, be enough. My members in the Forum of Private Businesses are telling me that trade has slumped since the attacks. This was reflected in footfall figures released by SPSL, the shopping tracking agency, which said that the number of shoppers had declined by 26 per cent on Friday 8 July, on Saturday by 21 per cent and on Sunday by 28 per cent.

So small business owners are understandably worried about the future and particularly critical of Transport for London's decision to increase the congestion charge by 60 per cent. Businesses were already worried about the impact on footfall and profits of such a steep increase before the terrible events of 7 July. Now they are fearful the increased congestion charge will simply give people another reason to stay away. As a London-based FPB member, Sayre Robinson-Horley of Forbes and Lomax electrical light fittings and sockets, told me: "We were worried about the impact of the [congestion charge] increase and it could not have been worse timed with the bombings."

In response to such concerns we at the FPB have written to the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, urging him to consider suspending the congestion charge for six months. We believe this act would send out all the right messages while London comes to terms with these epochal events. It would make it easier and cheaper to travel into the city by car. It would give the business community a much-needed injection of solidarity and support. And critically it would send out a compelling message that London is open and eager for business. Moreover it would give the capital a meaningful period of time to rebuild commercial confidence.

We understand Tfl may find this suggestion unattractive. However, the FPB would argue that although a congestion charge suspension may seem unattractive, the ameliorating effects would be substantial.

Tfl may find it has to act if trading enters a prolonged downturn. Attracting people into London is imperative. It is dangerous to underestimate how trade may suffer because many of the public are understandably uneasy about travelling to London. Last week the US overturned an order banning its 12,000 UK-based airmen from travelling beyond the M25. This u-turn was performed after stern criticism that the US was sending out the wrong messages. But it does demonstrate that the coming months could be very tough for small businesses in London. Businesses will need all the right messages and the right action.

I think that the mayor ought to heed the views of London business, best expressed in a message to me from on of my Forum's members, John Buckingham, the director of Union Land and Property, which is based in the West End.

He told me: "I am in the property business and I speak to a lot of retailers and restaurateurs, and I know they believe the congestion charge has been damaging. There are fewer people in London at the moment on all forms of transport. Suspending the c-charge would be a real boost towards restoring confidence. At the moment the increase is just another disincentive to coming into central London."

He is right. Let's hope that someone in Tfl is listening.

The writer is chief executive of the Forum of Private Business, which represents 25,000 UK small to medium sized firms.

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