Mayor faces Labour row over traffic charge

Proposals to extend road tolls throughout London have plunged Ken Livingstone into a political row as he attempts to rejoin the Labour Party.

The Independent revealed yesterday that Mr Livingstone's aides were drawing up a range of options for road tolls in the Greater London area. But the Mayor, who faces a Labour Party interview panel on Tuesday which will decide whether to recommend his readmission, was keen to distance himself from the deliberations of his senior officials.

Aware that the Government is anxious about any significant extension of road tolls in the capital, he issued a statement declaring that he had no proposals to extend levies to the rest of London.

Mr Livingstone, who is seeking to become the Labour candidate in the mayoral elections in the summer, said his only plan was to extend the existing £5 congestion charge area westwards into Kensington and Chelsea.

"Any wider policy of road pricing is an issue for national government probably requiring a general election manifesto commitment and certainly requiring new legislation," his statement said.

But Mr Livingstone has already asked the Government to use the capital as a pilot area for road-pricing schemes under consideration by the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling. The Mayor has pointed out to the Government that there are now 50,000 fewer cars a day entering the congestion zone and his transport authority has the resources to conduct trials before 2010. His officials believe permanent extensions to the scheme could be in place at about that time.

Transport for London refused to comment on the options under investigation by officials, but the Mayor was keen to wash his hands of their deliberations. Among the possibilities for charges are main arterial roads leading into the capital and routes around shopping centres in areas such as Kingston and Bromley at peak times of the week.

Transport for London officials argue that it would be possible to charge motorists every time they use their car within the Greater London area, given expected improvements in technology.

Mr Livingstone was expelled from the Labour Party for standing as an independent against the official candidate Frank Dobson in the elections for London Mayor in 2000. He will have to pass a "loyalty test" if he is to be readmitted to the party.

Richard Dyer, at Friends of the Earth, said the congestion charge had been a "great success" in reducing traffic and his organisation would welcome plans to extend it.

He said new schemes should "at the very least" keep motoring costs level with public transport if they were to persuade people to leave their cars at home.

The Conservatives are opposed to any radical extension of the levy. Damian Green, the shadow Transport Secretary, believes the proposals are part of the Mayor's "hidden agenda". He said: "Ideologically driven anti-motorist policies are not going to serve London or the country well."

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