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McLetchie: Congestion charging debate

Speech at a conference on road tolls

As a longstanding critic of City of Edinburgh Council's congestion charging scheme, I had hoped that the scheme would have been abandoned long before we reached this stage. However, the forthcoming referendum does offer residents in Edinburgh the opportunity to kill off this damaging, unnecessary and unfair scheme, even if the council has done its level best to engineer the result it wishes to see.

Scottish Conservatives have consistently opposed the whole idea of city entry tolls since they were first proposed by the Labour/Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive and we were the only party in the Scottish Parliament which opposed those sections of the Transport Act which gave councils the power to levy them.

However, having lost that particular battle, I think it is vital that the specific road toll scheme proposed in Edinburgh is defeated in the referendum because I do not believe it is justified and is detrimental to the interests of Edinburgh and its residents.

For a start, I do not accept the basic premise of the whole scheme - that so-called 'congestion charging' is really about reducing congestion. It has been recognised by Ken Livingstone amongst others that you can either aim to increase council revenue in order to fund public transport improvements or you can aim to cut congestion, but you can't do both. The experience in London shows that there has been a 16 per cent reduction in cars entering the zone, but a significantly smaller decrease in vehicle circulation within the zone, which suggests that once the toll is paid drivers are using their cars more in the zone. This has clearly had an effect on revenues, which is why despite Ken Livingstone promising a user-friendly prepay system it has failed to materialise. The reason is that he fears it could lead to falling revenue and increased congestion. Revenue would fall because 46 per cent of congestion charge revenue comes from fines imposed on those who innocently forget to pay the £5 before they drive through the zone - something prepay would help to prevent. And congestion would rise because those who currently find the inconvenient payment system more of a disincentive than the £5 fee would start to drive again.

The Edinburgh tolls plan is not a genuine attempt to reduce congestion, as it is nothing more than a crude tax designed to raise revenue for the council. The City Centre Retailers Group expressed their doubts to the public inquiry as to whether it 'would achieve any significant reduction in overall traffic levels, as distinct from a possible local reduction in congestion, however defined. The council's own evidence suggest only about a 2 per cent decrease in overall vehicle-kilometres and modest restraint of increasing congestion.' A genuine system of road pricing would levy a variable charge for the use of road space and offset this with lower vehicle excise duties and/or fuel taxes. There is no such quid pro quo on offer.

Moreover, the fact that the toll will be set at a flat rate of £2 means it will do little or nothing to reduce congestion. Independent studies have shown that the level of the toll would need to be much higher in order to reduce congestion, further evidence that this is really about raising more money for the council. Indeed one of the effects of the new toll would be an increase in congestion on the periphery of the inner cordon in residential areas which is far more dangerous to public safety and health. Moreover tolls will encourage out-of-town shopping, which will increase car usage. So much for the environmental benefits.

As the report on the public inquiry into Edinburgh's congestion charging scheme states, 'measurable indicators of congestion are difficult to establish.' Labour's transport guru and former Edinburgh Councillor David Begg seems to think it is much exaggerated as he wrote in Scotland on Sunday on 27th June 1999 that 'There has been no change in rush hour traffic volumes into Edinburgh city centre over the last 20 years.'

Whilst there is certainly room for improvement in Edinburgh, many of the problems of congestion have been caused by the council's expensive schemes for road narrowing and closure.

I want to see better traffic management, far more park and ride schemes and investment to improve public transport options. However, I do not believe that these should depend on the introduction of road tolls. The tolls scheme is supposed to pay for additional public transport schemes over and above the major schemes, such as two tram lines, which are being funded quite properly from taxes we have already paid. The bill for the North and West tram lines is supposed to be £375 million, but everyone knows that the final figure is likely to be in excess of £500 million. So tolls might not deliver any extras at all and if they do it will be way down the line. That is unless the tolls are increased, which is exactly what Ken Livingstone is now proposing for London where he wants to increase the charge from £5 to £8. And remember this is the man who promised at the time the tolls were introduced that 'I can't conceive of any circumstances in the foreseeable future where we would want to change the charge, although perhaps 10 years down the line it may be necessary.' Well a mere 2 years later, Londoners face the possibility of a 60 per cent increase in the charge. At that rate of progress after 10 years the charge would be £50, not £5.

So Edinburgh Council's assurance that there was no need for 'any unnecessary concern that the £2 charge now envisaged will escalate in an unpredictable or unreasonable manner' should be treated with a pinch of salt. Any increase above the rate of inflation would have to be the subject of a new charging order requiring public consultation and confirmation by Scottish Ministers. However, having seen the way that they have ignored public opposition to road tolls in two consultations, people should be under no illusions that the Edinburgh charge will remain at £2.

And other parts of Scotland should also be aware that if Edinburgh votes yes to tolls in the referendum, there will be a domino effect. Other towns and cities will be forced by the Scottish Executive to introduce tolling in return for public transport investment. Nicol Stephen told the Scottish Parliament's Transport Committee that the Executive 'do not currently have the capability or the resource to ensure delivery' of its transport investment programme and if these projects are to go ahead within the current timescale councils will be forced to raise extra revenue from tolls.

Make no mistake, the introduction of a £2 toll in Edinburgh is the thin end of a red wedge.

The introduction of the council's road toll scheme is certainly contrary to the interests of people in Edinburgh. I believe they are unfair and will hit motorists from lower income households particularly hard, particularly as we are talking about a flat rate charge. This view was backed up by the report of the Labour-dominated House of Commons Transport Committee which concluded that the tolls in London 'will of course have a disproportionate impact on those with low incomes.' They are already struggling to run the family car as a result of the extra taxes imposed by the Labour Government. This is hardly surprising when you consider that the Department of Transport's own statistics show that UK motorists pay the highest road fuel duties in Europe. Instead of piling an annual burden onto our motorists of up to £500 per year, it is high time that the money motorists already pay was used to better effect, particularly as David Begg has criticised Labour in the Daily Mail of 19th March 2002 for 'not spending as much as it should on transport.' It is ironic that it is the party which claims to represent the working man which wants to reserve our roads for the relatively well off. I don't want roads for the rich and pavements for the poor - I want roads for the people whose taxes have already paid for them.

Road tolls will also have an adverse effect on key workers such as teachers and on Edinburgh's future prosperity as they will hit the interests of local businesses. Businesses in Edinburgh are already paying higher business rates than their counterparts in England, as a result of the Scottish Executive's decision to end the uniform business rate poundage throughout the UK. Tolls will simply put city businesses at an even greater competitive disadvantage, which is a clear threat to local jobs.

This was the clear finding of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce's survey of its members on the subject. Of the 280 member firms that responded, two thirds were against the principle of congestion charging and only 7 per cent supported plans for a two-cordon scheme.

These views reflected those of other business organisations such as the City Centre Retail Group (CCRG), which includes Jenners, John Lewis and Harvey Nichols as well as business associations representing retailers in Princes Street and George Street, wrote to the council last month expressing its concerns about the scheme and drew attention to a retail impact study by the City Centre Management Company which forecast a 7 per cent drop in sales. This could result in up to 380 jobs and would have a greater impact on smaller retailers operating on the periphery of the city centre. Whilst this would be serious enough, John Lewis's own study of the impact of congestion charging in London suggested that the damage would be much greater. This was backed up by a Forum of Private Business survey of 500 small to medium sized businesses in London which found that 70 per cent of these businesses had seen a drop in profits since the introduction of the congestion charge and that 82 per cent opposed an increase in the charge and 85 per cent opposed the extension of the charging zone. This evidence led the CCRG to the conclusion that the proposals were flawed and could affect the vitality of the city centre.

Given the weight of evidence that the tolling scheme will have an adverse effect on Edinburgh citizens and fearing the electoral consequences of such an unpopular scheme, the Council has engaged in an exercise in the dark arts of propaganda that would make Eastern European dictators blush. The implementation and the results of the two public consultations undertaken by City of Edinburgh Council to justify the introduction of the tolling scheme were rigged, manipulated or ignored as it pleased the ruling Labour Group on the Council. In the first, the Council refused to send leaflets to every household and then rigged - or as they put it weighted responses to demonstrate even marginal support for the scheme. In the second, less than 5 per cent of respondents approved the plan, 50 per cent said no and 45 per cent had a variety of objections. Of course, in neither of these consultations was any attempt made to consult commuters from outwith the city, who are the people who will have to pay the tolls which is perhaps the greatest unfairness of all.

Of course, the Transport Act did recognise these wider ramifications as it requires any tolling scheme to be approved by Scottish ministers before it was introduced. The Scottish Executive has also made it clear that it will only give the go-ahead to congestion charging schemes which have clear public support and thus the referendum next month in Edinburgh to test public opinion in the city. I am delighted that West Lothian are also holding a referendum, but regret that Midlothian, East Lothian and Fife are not doing the same as many tens of thousands of residents in those areas commute to Edinburgh on a regular basis for work or social purposes.

However, let us not kid ourselves - the referendum was a panic response to the Balerno by-election in which the Labour vote completely and utterly collapsed and was combined with assurances given before the 2003 local and Scottish Parliament elections that there would be exemptions for Edinburgh residents outside the inner cordon. It helped to save the political skins of Labour Councillors, but not 2 Labour MSPs who bore the brunt of the political fallout from the tolls scheme.

So worried were the council about the result of this referendum that they have come up with a question which every objective observer regards as loaded and which clearly does not meet the Electoral Commission's guidelines for assessing the fairness of questions asked in referendums. And if the conduct of the referendum is flawed then how can the Scottish Executive have any confidence in the result and when they make their decision on whether the scheme should go ahead, how can they be sure it is soundly based?

The exemption proposed by the council is also problematic and is the subject of a legal challenge from Fife, Midlothian and West Lothian Councils. All those living in outlying areas of Edinburgh should be warned. If this legal challenge is successful then the exemption will no longer exist and there is no way that another referendum will be granted. The future of the exemption may well not be known when Edinburgh residents vote, so it is imperative that all residents in Edinburgh use this opportunity to kill off this tolls scheme.

I have no doubt they will. Despite the unfair question, despite the appalling abuses of the council which include a piece of pro-tolls propaganda going out with every ballot paper - something which Margaret Smith MSP said was akin to an all postal General Election in which 'the Government was the only party that could include an election address with the ballot paper.' And despite their desperate efforts to appease voters in outlying areas with an exemption, I am confident that common sense will prevail. People in Edinburgh have more sense than to vote for something so manifestly against their interests and they will also rightly react against the attempt to manipulate them by those running our council.

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