Overview: London drivers play the waiting game

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The Independent Online

No one can accuse Londoners of panicking about congestion charging. With only a few days before the system begins, the number of those registering is far below what was anticipated. The same reluctance to panic has been noted by estate agents, who have prepared themselves in the past year for a rush of buyers wanting to live inside the zone. For the few who have shown a preference, there is an overwhelming majority who have not blinked when the boundary is pointed out to them.

No one can accuse Londoners of panicking about congestion charging. With only a few days before the system begins, the number of those registering is far below what was anticipated. The same reluctance to panic has been noted by estate agents, who have prepared themselves in the past year for a rush of buyers wanting to live inside the zone. For the few who have shown a preference, there is an overwhelming majority who have not blinked when the boundary is pointed out to them.

A smart move in property is all about pre-empting demand, but the effect of Ken Livingstone's masterplan is such an unknown quantity that no amount of publicity, doom-laden warnings or even positive marketing have made much of an impact.

In St John's Wood, north London, Cluttons have three private parking or garage spaces for sale on the northern edge of the zone and might reasonably have expected them to have been snapped up by now. Instead, offers have not met the asking prices and they remain on the market.

Adrian Bagnall of Cluttons sees an element of "ostrich-like behaviour" among commuters, who could find themselves paying £30 a day to drive and park their cars – rather than buying or renting a garage for £50 to £100 a week. He sees immediate problems in the now-quiet residential streets on the edge of the zone, which could be turned into "rat runs" by drivers trying to steer clear of the charges. If that were to happen, prices there could drop by as much as 10 per cent, he says, but he admits that is pure conjecture.

Certainly, the picture for these residents is bleak. Take Matthew Kirwin, who drives daily from his Battersea home to the Cluttons office near Tower Bridge, on the borders of the charging zone. Instead of taking his usual route through the zone, he has been driving along the southern periphery, where he expects to be joined by hundreds more on Monday. If the journey becomes horrific his choices are to make a pre-dawn start, stick out the jams, move house or pay up. "I will probably end up paying up. Like everyone else, I am waiting to see. I am sure it will take at least three months for the real effects to be felt. If it then becomes clear that life inside the zone is blissfully quiet then that will be an selling point for properties."

But the opinion of most estate agents is that Londoners will come to regard the congestion charge as just another unavoidable expense that they must add to the cost of living in the capital. People choose their homes by criteria such as parks, schools and, most of all, public transport. Proximity to underground and rail services does have a significant effect on prices and is the first question most buyers ask about any property they are viewing. Far worse than the congestion charge is the recent suggestion from the mayor's office that householders whose properties increase in value thanks to improved transport links should face an additional tax.

Maybe the real concern should be not whether the congestion charge will work but where it will stop. Like other tides of change rolling out from central London there is no knowing where it will end up – the M25, perhaps?

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