Edinburgh gridlocked over plans to charge £2-a-day congestion fee

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The Independent Online

With a nickname of "Auld Reekie", it is not surprising that the Scottish capital is in the front line of efforts to cut the congestion clogging its streets.

With a nickname of "Auld Reekie", it is not surprising that the Scottish capital is in the front line of efforts to cut the congestion clogging its streets.

But with a week to go before the result of Britain's first referendum on congestion charging is known, the inhabitants appear gridlocked. They want to reduce traffic pollution but are reluctant to limit their personal transport options.

Edinburgh council is seeking residents' views on its proposed transport programme, which includes a congestion charge for motorists entering the city which would be invested in better public transport.

A "yes" vote would make Edinburgh the first British city to be cordoned for charging - London's scheme is restricted to the city centre - and pro-campaigners claim the £2 charge would generate £760m in the next 20 years to be spent on developing world-class tram and train links.

Although Edinburgh is a booming European capital, a World Heritage Site and the centre of Scotland's financial power, lack of investment in public transport have forced many commuters to go to work by car.

"Edinburgh is producing jobs faster than it is adding to its population. This is good news for the people of the whole region, but we have to find a way of getting them into the city without choking the streets with cars which are often carrying only one person," said Ray Perman, the chairman of the pro-charge Yes to Edinburgh, and board member of Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothians.

According to Edinburgh City Council, the past 40 years has seen a dramatic rise in traffic congestion and with the latest economic trends predicting more than 50,000 people will move into the area, increasing traffic by 25 per cent in the next decade, the situation is becoming critical. The council hopes to introduce a two-cordon scheme, with an inner cordon around the centre and an outer cordon following the ring road. Drivers would pay at ticket machines, by text message, online, by post or in shops while cameras would be placed at the cordons to identify non-payers.

Motorcycles, bicycles, taxis, buses and coaches, disabled badge holders, breakdown trucks, car club vehicles and emergency vehicles would be exempt from the charge, which would apply from 7am to 6.30pm at the inner cordon, and from 7am to 10am at the outer boundary on weekdays. Those motorists who have to pay would be charged only once a day and would not have to pay extra for crossing both cordons.

Despite the city's promise to invest all the money from congestion charging into improved public transport, the proposal has been condemned by critics. Many argue that alternative options need to be in place before vehicles are driven from the roads.

"This is all really about dissuading unnecessary or non- essential journeys," said Andrew Burns, Edinburgh's transport chief. "There is no city with a population of 500,000 that has cut congestion just by improving public transport.''

Edinburgh's motorists already feel persecuted by the city's privatised parking control system, whose uniformed wardens - derided by drivers as Blue Meanies - are vilified for raising millions in profits from errant drivers.