Congestion charge: Chelsea's motorists sing the blues

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The Independent Online

Rarely had a street demonstration involved so many women in cashmere and pearls. But as a group of immaculately-groomed residents marched up a boutique-filled street in South Kensington yesterday, some carrying placards bearing "Red Ken" slogans, it was plain to see it was no ordinary street protest.

The angry group of about 50 business owners, property dealers and wealthy neighbours, some walking their designer pooches, said the extension of the £8 congestion charge to Kensington & Chelsea would destroy smaller, independent shops for which the area was famed.

The group stressed the charge would only discourage shoppers, leaving local businesses, including butchers, exclusive boutiques and designer shops struggling.

Jane Morris, owner of the century-old interior design shop, Percy Bass, on Walton Street, made a rousing speech on "this very black day" on the precarious future of local livelihoods.

"We must fight to protect the village atmosphere and small shops in London. Communities are being split. It's disgraceful ... I think we will find lots of empty shops soon," she said.

Merrick Cockell, the Conservative leader of the council, added that it was unfair to apply a "blanket charge" to all, including those making journeys in to drop children at school, or pregnant women visiting Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, the main maternity unit in the area. However, the borough's residents will receive a 90 per cent discount on the charge, making it cheaper for them to drive through the whole of central London.

Not every affluent resident was against the charge. Vasilis Sarantidis, who lives in Cromwell Road, pointed contemptuously at the demonstrators and said: "Look at these selfish people. Taxis can't move on the road, our health is suffering because of car fumes, children are getting fatter because they never walk anywhere. These people don't think for the whole of London. They just think for their corner. It is a village mentality."

Michele Weininger, a businesswoman from west London, said: "Ken Livingstone has a built-in hatred for people on this side of London. He calls us toffs. What he doesn't realise is that this area is mixed. We voted against this. The riff-raff voted Ken Livingstone in. But we are not riff-raff here. We are decent people."