Suburban drivers to face tolls in congestion charge shake-up

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The Independent Online

Ken Livingstone's aides are drawing up plans for the controversial imposition of suburban road tolls to ease London's chronic traffic congestion, a move which could ultimately see motorists paying for every journey inside the vast M25 area.

The Mayor of London believes the £5 charge in the centre of the capital has proved so successful that it should pave the way for a system of levies covering much of Greater London, according to his officials.

Transport for London believes it is "no longer outrageous" to think in terms of a London-wide scheme. Peter Hendy, Transport for London's managing director of surface transport, said most estimates calculated that half the road congestion in Britain was concentrated in London. "If the Mayor can solve that with new technology it would make an enormous contribution to the country's economy," he said.

Among the early possibilities under discussion are congestion charges in shopping centres such as Kingston and Bromley and tolls on main arterial roads into London such as the A12 in east London. Mr Livingstone has already raised the possibility of charges for motorists driving to Heathrow - a proposal that could help to satisfy ministers' stipulation that the airport must meet tough new pollution limits if a third runway is to be built.

Despite initial indifference to the scheme in central London, the Government has become convinced that the extension of road-pricing to other crowded urban roads and motorways is the most effective means of cutting congestion nationally.

Last month, Britain's first toll motorway opened near Birmingham, and other cities, notably Edinburgh, are developing plans to impose charges on drivers.

But a move to impose congestion charges throughout London would inevitably arouse fierce opposition from drivers, motoring organisations and businesses.

The most radical proposal on the table would see charges introduced for any journey within the Greater London area, varying with the time of day and location. And a team of experts at Transport for London believes that, given funds from central government, such initiatives could be operational by around 2010.

They say that while current camera technology has proved sufficient for the present charging area in central London and a proposed western extension of the zone, more sophisticated systems must be developed if tolls are to be more widely applied. Among the alternatives being evaluated are digital cameras and satellite-based technology.

Mr Livingstone believes that road charging, together with the expansion of public transport, could be the only response to the extra traffic expected on the capital's roads. The population of London is predicted to expand by up to 900,000 over the next 15 years, according to official estimates.

Transport for London argues that this will have a "dramatic" impact on the road network. Not only will there simply be more people, there will be higher proportions of car ownership and greater expectation of mobility, officials believe.

While the present system - introduced on 17 February last year - operates between 7am and 6.30pm on weekdays, tolls elsewhere might be levied at different times of the day and at different days in the week to cope with specific problems.

The deliberations of the Mayor's senior staff however came under fire from the Conservatives. Damian Green, the shadow Transport Secretary, said it seemed the Mayor's "hidden agenda" was now becoming public.

"If Ken Livingstone starts trying to tax every motorist who drives into the Greater London area, it would be a huge issue for the national economy not just the London economy. Ideologically-driven anti-motorist policies are not going to serve London or the country well," he said.

A recent poll by YouGov for the London Evening Standard showed that the number of people supporting the existing levy had risen from 48 per cent a year ago to 57 per cent now. The number opposing the scheme has declined three points to 36 per cent. The newspaper, which had been a vociferous critic of the initiative, admitted that it had been a success.

However the poll revealed that only around 25 per cent were in favour of a plan to extend the charge westward towards Kensington and Chelsea, with 64 per cent against.

There is little doubt that it has had an impact on business in the centre of London. The John Lewis Partnership has seen sales decline by 5 per cent at its flagship store in Oxford Street. Meanwhile, the company's Peter Jones store in Chelsea, which is outside the area, has enjoyed a 2.5 per cent increase in turnover.

London First, an organisation representing more than 300 large businesses in the capital, and the London Chamber of Commerce, with membership among smaller traders, are both reserving final judgement on the plans until next month, when the congestion charge will have been operating for 12 months. But business organisations privately regard the eventual extension of road charging as inevitable.