Sean O'Grady: An unfair tax - coming soon to a road near you

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Indy Lifestyle Online

First, a word of apology to those readers who don't happen to live in, or commute into, the capital. The media's London-centric tendency has been well noted and deplored enough times, and such condemnations are entirely right.

However, I thought that, as one of those of us unlucky enough to be trapped in the place, unable to return to such a Nirvana as Leicester, except on all too brief visits, I ought to try to alert the rest of the nation to an important phenomenon sweeping the capital. For in hundreds, maybe thousands of bedrooms, in the small hours of the morning, you will find Londoners awakened and bolt upright, uttering an expletive far worse than "gosh" or "golly", their anguish brought on by the realisation that they have failed to pay Ken Livingstone's congestion charge by midnight.

I know this, not because I've visited hundreds, perhaps thousands, of London bedrooms, but because I myself have experienced that dread fear and I know from conversations that many others have, too .

There must be something that goes on in the human mind in the early stages of sleep that sort of reviews what's been happening to it during the day. Or maybe it's a sort of memory sweep-up, where one part of the brain rummages through the mental Post-it notes and knotted handkerchiefs .

Our subconscious tidy-up involves discarding all the items we have successfully remembered to do, until something truly grim is encountered. Yes, you drove into the congestion zone today; you thought you'd pay it when you got home. But then you had to go shopping, worry about the rash on the baby, make dinner and entertain friends, so...

It really is a horrible, helpless, futile, gut-wrenching feeling. Because you know that the only thing that stands between you and a fine of £50 is the off-chance that one or more of Ken's cameras has gone on the blink. There is no mercy and little consistency in the system, and it is, as you are no doubt already aware, a tax on absent-mindedness.

My point about the congestion charge is not that it is necessarily bad, nor that, at £5 per day now and £8 per day from next month, it is excessive, although you might well think that. My point is that the methods by which it is enforced are unfair, and that that drags the tax into disrepute.

One of the canons of taxation has to be that the tax is perceived to be fair, and the congestion charge falls badly on that score. There is no reason why it has to be paid at midnight on the day of travel. Natural justice would suggest that drivers should be given 24 hours to pay. In the case of parking, we get two weeks before the fines start racking up. How much more acceptable the congestion charge would be if it were applied with a little more humanity.

Many Londoners (and non-Londoners, too) run busy lives; it is a function of economic success. Why does Mr Livingstone want to make those lives even more stressful by being so nasty about his little tax?

The answer, of course, is that he needs the money. The congestion charge hasn't brought in as much revenue as first forecast, and the Mayor probably makes a disproportionately large amount of his total congestion charge income from the fines, as opposed to the charge itself; £50 a go does very nicely for his various bus schemes.

And, if you want to avoid the congestion charge and hop onto one of London's lovely commuter trains, you'll soon be charged for that, too. So what? Well, so it's all coming to you. Road-charging, a barmy idea in itself, could well be in pilot schemes in cities in five years, and nationally imposed in a decade. The rail congestion scheme will be national anyway. Do not be surprised if the authorities find ways heavily to penalise you if you won't pay your road-charging bill or rail congestion premium bang on time.

So, this is London calling at the top of the dial. Just don't forget who warned you.

motoring@independent.co.uk

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