What Ken Livingstone has had to defend in court for London will become a reality amid the historic splendour of Durham in weeks. The walled cathedral city is to become the first in Britain to impose a toll on motorists.
Durham's £2 toll scheme will be more limited than the one to be introduced in the capital next February, but its introduction is evidence of the value Durham places on the tranquillity of its cobbled streets and cloistered colleges.
Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, yesterday approved the plan to charge motorists £2 each time they exit an area including the city's castle and cathedral, recently voted Britain's best-loved building in a national architectural poll.
Up to 3,000 motorists a day use the only road into the historic part of the city, near a loop of the river Wear on which the imposing cathedral stands in a World Heritage site. The road also reaches homes, businesses, parts of Durham University and the Chorister School, where Tony Blair was a pupil.
The same road, Saddler Street, which is wide enough for only one car at a time, is also used by 13,000 pedestrians a day, rising to 17,000 on a Saturday and the council says conflict between pedestrians and drivers causes safety concerns. Ken Manton, the leader of Durham County Council, says the charge, to come in next month, is meant to dissuade needless car use and reduce traffic rather than raise money.
"We believe the access charge will ... give more breathing space to pedestrians in the city centre and substantially enhance the environment," he said. "It is important that we manage the very restricted road space we have so everyone can enjoy the historic part of the city."
A rising bollard, already in place, is linked to a ticket machine and will control the procedure. The machine will be monitored by CCTV cameras and linked to an intercom system. Exemptions will allow residents and their visitors, as well as mopeds and disabled drivers, to leave Saddler Street without charge but drivers who do not pay or fail to produce an exemption permit will face a £30 "excess charge".
The announcement represents the conclusion of five years of planning by Durham County Council. "I would be happy to invite Mr Livingstone here to take a note of our scheme," Mr Manton said.
Buoyed by the court ruling in favour of the Mayor of London, Edinburgh and Nottingham also confirmed that they intended to bring in charges, while Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Chester, Reading, Milton Keynes and Derbyshire councils have drawn up plans to impose charges. Other cities in Britain said they were "monitoring developments closely" and could follow London if the scheme succeeded in cutting car use and raising revenue.
Electronic road pricing is also used to collect tolls in France, Norway and the United States. However, controversy over road charges continues to rage. Attempts to introduce "congestion pricing" in Minneapolis and Portland in America have been rebuffed, while in the Netherlands "road pricing" initiatives are meeting determined opposition from local officials and automobile clubs.
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