Tuesday, November 23, 2010

London c-charge changes miss big picture

The London congestion charge is set for a welcome New Year shake-up.

New rules due to come into force on 4th January will finally scrap the westward extension of the c-charge zone, freeing residents, businesses and travellers in Bayswater, Notting Hill, Kensington and Chelsea from the grips of the scheme.

The shrunken zone will stretch only from an Edware Road - Park Lane - Vauxhall Bridge Road boundary in the west
to the current eastern boundary.

The change will fufill at last the election promise to scrap the western enlargement of the zone made by London mayor Boris Johnson, which was thought to be a major factor in his success over his repressive, money-grasping predecessor Ken Livingstone.

Economic boost

Thousands of people who enter the western zone, or who were forced to travel through it to access work,
will save a fortune. This will very likely be spent instead on goods and services that both improve their lives and provide much-needed support for the businesses on which Britain's economic recovery depends.

For example, those who travel into or through the western zone three times a week at £8 a shot will enjoy an incredible saving of £1,248 per year.

Given that surveys estimate 60% of all journeys through the western extension originate outside the zone, that a third of western zone users admits to finding the c-charge hard to afford, and that a majority of local businesses blamed the c-charge for reduced profitability, the move will provide a welcome increase in income for particularly low- and average-waged households for whom public transport cannot meet their needs - as well as for local businesses.

Oppressive time limit tackled

A further beneficial development is the launch of a new 'Auto Pay' service, which records each visit into the zone made by cars that are registered for the service and takes a monthly payment.

This helps alleviate the outrageous situation in which, if you forgot to pay on the day of travel or the day after, you were hit with a massive £60 fine.

Quite how Ken Livingstone felt it reasonable or appropriate to put such a short time limit on payment of his 'toll tax' is beyond imagination, but reveals a great deal that's unappealing about that man's mindset.

I wonder how many people have already been grossly ripped off - and how much hard-earned cash has been robbed by officialdom as a result of brief distraction or forgetfulness - due to that particularly oppressive element of the scheme.

There are also changes to the exemption rules to link free access to the zone to a car's emissions rather than its alternative fuel technology. What Car magazine has published a handy list of winners and losers as a result of this change.

Charge to rise

But the news isn't all good.

While many people stand to be released from the impositions and costs of the scheme, those who still need to drive in the original central zone face charges that are being increased from a level that is already beyond reasonable or acceptable.

The daily charge to enter the zone will be hiked by £2, from £8 to £10 if you pay on the day you enter the zone and from £10 to £12 if you pay the day after - although you'll get away with £9 if you're registered for 'Auto Pay'.

Reality check

But all this discussion of tweaks to the c-charge overlooks the elephant in the room. It has not cut congestion.

Livingstone's scheme has been failing almost since the start. All at vast expense to the public, £340m of which - up to November 2009 - has been pocketed by the 'public administration' plc Capita for creating and running the system.

As far back as late 2007 and again in April 2008 there were warnings that the scheme was not reducing congestion in the c-charge zone.

Today, even
TfL continues to admit that "sadly, congestion has risen back to pre-charging levels".

Though TfL goes on to claim, dubiously, that the situation would be worse without the charge and blames this outcome on "widespread water and gas main replacement works, which have greatly reduced the road capacity" and "Traffic management measures to help pedestrians and other road users".

Problems that clearly remain since April 2008, the second of which has been very much in TfL's gift to resolve.

Isn't it somewhat outrageous to charge people large sums for the benefit of driving in a supposedly reduced congestion area, just to make changes to other aspects of "traffic management" that have made congestion just as bad as it was before any charge was levied at all? How does TfL justify this behaviour and its continued right to charge car users anything at all?

Bus problem

Or perhaps those excuses are not the real problems contributing to the failure of the scheme at all.

The more likely reason, as we've previously blogged, is that Ken Livingstone wasted the c-charge income on a vast increase in bus numbers.

Anyone who has followed a bus through London will know the congestion and tailbacks even one causes while it negotiates London's crowded streets, spewing health-endangering diesel fumes, often with only a handful of people on board.

There are far too many, being subsidised at excessive public cost.

Congrats, but ...

So, Boris - congratulations for scrapping the western zone as you promised. A politician who keeps his promises is certainly not to be sniffed at!

But now its time to face facts. The c-charge isn't cutting congestion. It's just a massive extra tax on Londoners and a gift for paper-shuffling, public-harassing, penalty-charging officialdom.

It's time to rid London of Ken Livingstone's ridiculous and repressive congestion charging scam altogether.

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