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Angie Bray AM is the London Assembly Member for West Central (encompassing the Boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and the City of Westminster). Recently promoted to the ‘A’ list, she is also the Leader of the London Assembly Conservatives and the spokesperson for the Congestion Charge.

Much has recently been made of the exciting new format for the selection of the next Conservative candidate for Mayor. An open primary, seeking to draw in as broader range of candidates as possible, and seeking to enfranchise all Londoners in the selection process is an excellent way of getting the best candidate and connecting with voters. But what issues will the future candidate have to campaign on, and what looms largest in Londoner’s minds?

Right at the top of the pile has to be congestion. It is clear that the issue of congestion in London will not go away, and the challenge for all politicians and parties is to find a truly effective and lasting solution. The introduction of the congestion charge in 2003 was a bold measure, seeking to grasp the nettle, but it has ultimately be proven as an ineffective and broadly unpopular measure. The western extension, due to come on line next year is even more unpopular and has been fiercely opposed by most of west London.

However, as much as we can point out the flaws of the current system (of which there are many) and campaign on the unpopularity, the unfortunate fact is that, at the time of the next Mayoral election, the scheme will have been in place for 5 years. Our arguments have been well rehearsed; simply expressing opposition alone is no longer an intelligent strategy, and the Conservatives should be talking about what lies ahead, rather than repeating well-worn arguments.

When it comes to road user charging, the essential trade off for motorists is that a charge is paid in exchange for a quicker journey. Unfortunately, the Mayor has dropped his side of the bargain, with the average speed in central London the second lowest on record since 1968. The only time it was lower was in the period immediately preceding the congestion charge (2000-2003), where it is well known that a plethora of traffic management measures such as more bus lanes and a re-phasing of all the traffic lights held speeds down far below the level of the existing trend. Today, as the Mayor admitted recently, the average speed in London is just 10mph.

And, as the Mayor announced at the recent Question Time at City Hall, he is now shifting his focus from cutting congestion to cutting emissions, with a proposed £25 a day charge for the heaviest polluting vehicles from 2009. Cutting emissions is the right principle, but yet again he has gone for a negative incentive, rather than a positive incentive. (I would welcome reader’s views on this, is £25 too much?)

Never the less, proper road pricing (which is different to the congestion charge permit system) can be a positive measure to combat congestion. A brief glance at other schemes around the world shows how road pricing can be used effectively, without penalising the motorist.

Every other major scheme in the world (Singapore, Stockholm, Trondheim) charges based on when you use the road, and what vehicle you drive. This way, they can both reduce emissions and improve the flow of traffic based on demand. In Singapore, as a result of this approach, the average speed has never fallen below 15mph. In Stockholm, drivers never pay more than £4, with the most expensive time period £1.40 and traffic has fallen by 25% since January. Whilst in London, the fall has been measured at 26% since 2003. Crucially, Stockholm get their figure from literally counting the cars and comparing them on a month by month basis, whereas London measures it by counting cars only in spring and autumn. Additionally, you may have heard the Mayor saying that congestion has fallen by 30%, however, according to TfL’s own annual survey; “road users were probably (my emphasis) experiencing an effective 30% reduction in congestion.” So much for accuracy!

Other schemes also utilise ‘tag and beacon’ technology, where sensors fitted in cars automatically have money deducted from the driver when they drive in a certain area, at a certain time of day. These Oystercards for cars in London would make flexible pricing easier, and ease the burden on retailers during the day. This is especially important, as the damage done to small/medium retailers and businesses was one of our original reasons for opposing the scheme, three years on and the negative effects are clear. There are, of course, serious arguments against such ‘spy-in-the-sky’ technology, and the best schemes do not compel drivers to have sensors in their cars, using a back-up camera system. Other measures, such as the introduction of school buses for primary school children would immediately ease congestion even without road pricing.

Certain changes, like changes to pricing and environmental incentives could be made virtually immediately. A maximum cap would ensure small businesses that make multiple journeys are not heavily penalised, and a quarterly review of pricing (as they do in Singapore) would enable the Mayor to closely manage average speeds. So there are examples of fairer, more effective alternatives. It is important for us to have this debate, as simply saying ‘get rid of it’, without articulating what the positive alternatives are and without having a serious dialogue on where to go next will only leave the next Mayoral candidate with nothing new to say on one of the most important issues in London.

20 comments for: Angie Bray AM: Alternatives to the congestion charge

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