Edinburgh holds key to congestion charge
Andrew Clark and Gerard Seenan
Cities throughout Britain are awaiting the outcome of a knife-edge referendum in which Edinburgh’s 300,000 residents are voting on whether to charge motorists for driving into Scotland’s capital.
The verdict could determine the future of congestion charges, which appeared unstoppable two years ago when Ken Livingstone overcame opposition by introducing a levy on drivers in London.
Edinburgh’s plans are the most radical so far; it is the first time anywhere in the world that an entire city would be covered by a congestion charge, with a £2 fee levied across an outer cordon during the morning rush hour.
But supporters of charging are irritated the city council has set a precedent by putting the scheme to a vote. They accuse local politicians of an excess of democratic zeal and fear that a No vote would kill off tentative proposals for similar charging in cities such as Cardiff, Southampton, Bristol and Manchester.
Derek Turner, who designed London’s scheme, said the complexity of predicting the impact on traffic meant the public could not make an informed choice. He backed a compromise in Stockholm, where the public are to vote on a charging scheme after it has been operating for a year.
Today is the second anniversary of London’s congestion charge. Congestion over that period is down by 30%, pollution by 12% and accidents by 9%. But reservations about the levy remain among businesses: the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors said nine out of 10 retailers felt it was damaging business.
In Edinburgh ballots have been sent out and the result of the referendum is due next Tuesday. If the city council fails to get its way, it has mooted banning cars from the city centre altogether.
Under the charging scheme there would be two zones in the city which carry a £2 charge.
The outer zone would operate in the morning rush hour and an inner zone for the city centre would carry the charge until 6.30pm. The non-payment fine would be £60.
Other city councils admit Edinburgh voters’ verdict will be crucial.
Jill Baston, Southampton council’s executive member for transport, said the city was commissioning research on local attitudes to a charge.
‘Obviously, we’ll be interested in the result in Edinburgh,’ she said.
Manchester is looking at a charge as part of a deal in return for government funds in extending its Metro system.
Jim James, Cardiff’s transport councillor, said ‘doing nothing is not an option’ in the face of traffic growth.
But he wants a £500m investment in public transport before pressing on with a charge.
Alistair Darling, the transport secretary, has increasingly offered financial rewards to councils willing to consider charges, telling them they would be given greater control over local bus services and offering them access to a new transport innovation fund.
Tony Grayling, associate director at the Institute of Public Policy Research, said a rejection in Edinburgh would be ‘a significant blow’ which would put charging back by several years.
‘If this is lost it will probably put off many councils from considering charges for many years,’ said Mr Grayling.
‘I don’t see local authorities queuing up to do it, it’s such an easy thing to attack.’
Source: The Guardian