What's so scary about congestion charging?

After a few months of chaos and resentment, London will settle down nicely to the new arrangement
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The Independent Online

I dare say that it looks from the outside to be a pretty bad time to live in London, what with the Government reminding us so forcefully that we should be braced against planes dropping on our houses, and so on. But it's not so bad really. London may be one of the world's terrorist hotspots, but in the capital we haven't forgotten how to enjoy ourselves.

I dare say that it looks from the outside to be a pretty bad time to live in London, what with the Government reminding us so forcefully that we should be braced against planes dropping on our houses, and so on. But it's not so bad really. London may be one of the world's terrorist hotspots, but in the capital we haven't forgotten how to enjoy ourselves.

For light relief, we have congestion charging to look forward to on Monday, with a £5 fee to be levied on virtually any driver who wishes to enter a small but amenity-packed patch of the centre. Since I've never owned a car, and have always gained the impression that the beasts are a liability in the metropolis, I'm able to look upon the experiment as a mystified spectator. And what sterling entertainment it's shaping up to be.

The most fun is to be had from reading London's local paper, the Evening Standard. Even though polls show that Londoners are marginally in favour of charging – probably because 40 per cent of households here don't actually have a car, and 80 per cent of workers use public transport to get to work anyway – the paper has been tireless in its opposition to the scheme.

This involves finding angry little knots of people willing to employ all kinds of hyperbole in order to press their own tiny cases. My absolute favourite is a chap called Stephen Alambritis, who is styled as head of parliamentary affairs for the Federation of Small Businesses. He contends that "as the cost begins to bite, small traders will simply stop operating in the city centre. The worry is that central London will become an economic wasteland."

What is he suggesting here? That no one will want to do business with the residents of Mayfair, or with companies in the City because their clients can't swallow a fiver a day in extra costs? The Standard certainly believes him, since it headlined another story with the warning: "Household bills to soar as workmen pass on charge."

What workmen? These, presumably, are the workmen living in Mayfair and working outside it, as well as those working in Mayfair and living outside it. Maybe they could all re-align themselves and work more locally. Then there would be no transport costs to pass on at all, and household bills would then, I'm certain, simply plummet.

Then, of course, there are property prices. The maintenance of inflated property prices is very important in London, because without them, Londoners would have to ditch their plans to move to the country "in the next 10 years" and inflate prices there too. Obviously, anything that damages this socially progressive scheme is the enemy of all right-thinking rich people.

There were hopes to begin with that prices would become even higher inside the zone, as people rushed to buy houses for millions of pounds in order to avoid coughing up a fiver every time they visited Bond Street. Astoundingly, this hasn't happened. The new wisdom is that prices will drop just outside the zones, as Londoners drive dizzily for miles round the zone, looking for parking spaces or avoiding the direct, expensive route through the zone of tranquillity, causing "pollution havoc".

The economic scare stories keep doing the rounds, and some shops are even offering to refund shoppers' fivers if they spend more than £50 in their stores, in order to keep them coming. Even more loony are the emotional appeals that rely on finding angles which involve children or animals.

This has involved finding legions of women who insist that without a car it is absolutely impossible to bring up children. One particularly absurd couple, on local television, explained how they needed a car in order to transport their two little ones (one big enough to walk, one small enough to nestle in a sling) and their two huge buggies to an unspecified place where they could be pushed around in them. Wheels within wheels indeed. Another mother, who set up a website so that Londoners could abuse Ken Livingstone for his cruel idiocy, has attested that with a buggy, "using the bus is almost impossible".

If the poor dear ever went on a bus, she'd find that loads of people do this very thing all the time, and that it's actually just as simple as it appears to be. You put the buggy on the bus, paying nothing for it if the child in the buggy is under five. Then, when you arrive at your destination, you take it off again. It's not even remotely demanding.

Animals are more tricky, not being drivers themselves and therefore not pathetically dependent on their cars. But the Standard has still managed to highlight the plight of the RSPCA, which wants to be exempted from all charges as it has to go into the zone sometimes to rescue injured animals. Frankly, if I was rescuing injured animals, I'd be jolly pleased I no longer had to sit in a traffic jam before I got to them. The RSPCA, instead, is putting its rescue missions "on hold" as a protest against clearer streets.

Another great London fear that is being milked in order to undermine congestion charging is the fear of crime. Crime, claims the Standard, will be driven out of the centre, where cameras lurk, and into the boondocks outside the zone, where Londoners will be living in negative equity among black fumes of exhaust smoke, yet thanking their lucky stars all the same that there's no longer any reason to go into the economic wasteland that is central London.

But for the unlucky few, who have to work there still, the redrawn city will pulsate with danger. The actress, Samantha Bond, has been campaigning tirelessly to highlight the difficulty that low-paid workers, entering the zone before the charges end at 6.30 pm, will face.

Leaving their cars at home because they cannot afford the charge, they will then have to use late-night transport, and walk home from Tube stations or bus stops through dark and empty streets.

This, I think, is a point that is partly but not entirely answered by those who rebut the scenario by suggesting that low-paid workers do not tend to run cars anyway. My own feeling though is that Ms Bond would do better to campaign against low-paid work and employers having no responsibility to help late-night workers to make transport arrangements, than to attack congestion charging.

There has been a debate about whether congestion charging is a progressive or a regressive tax. The tax is progressive in that many of the rich will pay up and subsidise the public transport of the poor in doing so. But it is regressive in that some of the poor will be compelled to change their habits in response to the introduction of the charge.

The workers Ms Bond champions are among those who fall into the latter category. But the fact is, the manner in which they change their habits is not necessarily going to be detrimental. Cycling or using a motorbike instead of running a car would free up cash, while casting around in the area where they work for others, with whom to share a car or a taxi at night, may also result in cash savings.

My own belief is that after a few months of chaos and resentment, London will settle down nicely to the new arrangement, just as it has to the parking zones that have been springing up all over the place for years. And Mr Livingstone's political future will be assured. Which, for me, is the only fly in the ointment, because I can't stand the guy. If the Evening Standard were honest, it would admit that this is its real problem with congestion charging as well.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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