Mayor to consider twofold extension of congestion charge

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The Independent Online

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is considering major extensions to the congestion charging scheme despite concerns that it is damaging businesses.

On the anniversary yesterday of the introduction of the toll, Mr Livingstone said he would decide next year whether to press ahead with a twofold expansion of the existing area and "more substantial changes".

Transport for London (TfL) is drawing up a range of options including the introduction of charges on main roads into London and around shopping centres such as Kingston and Bromley. Officials at TfL have played down the possibility of such initiatives, saying they would require improvements in technology and government support.

But in a press conference called to mark the anniversary of the scheme, Mr Livingstone was in no mood to be cautious. He suggested that the period covered by the £5 charge - 7am to 6.30pm - be extended into the evening, although he acknowledged that it could have an impact on theatres.

Mr Livingstone announced the start of a consultation process over the western extension of the zone into Kensington and Chelsea, possibly by 2006. Leaflets were dispatched to about 3.3 million households and 250,000 businesses as part of the exercise.

The Mayor's figures showed there had been an 18 per cent reduction in traffic in the existing zone during charging hours and a 30 per cent reduction in the number of cars. An additional 29,000 people were using buses in the morning peak period. "If it had not gone this way people would have said it was a personal defeat," said Mr Livingstone. "This is the only thing that I have done or been associated with in 33 years of public life that has turned out better than I thought it would."

A survey conducted for TfL showed that about 70 per cent of businesses supported the toll, provided there was investment in public transport. About 20 per cent of businesses disagreed, expressing concern that takings at shops and restaurants within the zone had declined.

Mr Livingstone said he was talking to business leaders to solve the problem. He said that stores should "up their game" and follow the example of the Selfridges department store which continued to attract customers by having unique products for sale and carrying a huge range of merchandise. He said the John Lewis department store in Oxford Street, which has complained of 5 per cent lower receipts, should follow its example. He said firms had been hit by a general economic downturn and fears of terrorist attack, but that tourists would return.

Mr Livingstone conceded there had been "small localised impacts" on the edge of the zone. Local councils should introduce "imaginative" parking schemes and varying parking hours to deal with the problem, he said.

Steve Norris, the Conservative candidate for the mayoralty, said: "The only person who thinks this scheme is not hurting business is Ken Livingstone. Congestion charging is doing real damage."

The charge had been expected to raise £180m for public transport, but it is well short of that estimate. Instead officials expect to receive £68m this year. About 165,000 penalties for failure to pay are being issued each month, with 22 per cent of drivers "making representations" and 70 per cent paying immediately. Police are trying to track down 100 people who created false number plates to evade the charge.