London charging scheme starts

FROM today, it will cost £5 to drive into central London as Mayor Ken Livingstone introduces congestion charging. The Government has distanced itself from the scheme – but if it's successful, provincial cities and towns might be emboldened to follow suit.

FROM today, it will cost £5 to drive into central London as Mayor Ken Livingstone introduces congestion charging. The Government has distanced itself from the scheme – but if it's successful, provincial cities and towns might be emboldened to follow suit. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES examines the background.

CHRONIC traffic congestion is bringing central London to a grinding halt. Foolhardy though it might be, thousands of motorists would prefer to drive through the West End and the City every day rather than grapple with the capital's network of underground trains and buses.

So from today, in a move designed to discourage casual drivers, Mayor Ken Livingstone is introducing a £5 congestion charge every time you enter the inner heart of London at peak periods.

Drivers from East Anglia using the M11, A12, A13 or A127 will hit congestion charging at the Tower of London. The eight square miles central zone on both sides of the River Thames is bordered by the inner ring road – looping from Liverpool Street Station and Great Eastern Street to Commercial Street, Tower Bridge Road, New Kent Road, Kennington Lane, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Grosvenor Place, Park Lane, Edgware Road, Marylebone Road, Euston Road, Pentonville Road and City Road.

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From 7am to 6.30pm Mondays to Fridays, around 230 cameras positioned on the zone's entry points will match car number plates against a database of vehicles whose drivers have paid the charge. Any motorist who has not paid by the end of the day will be fined £80.

Estimates put the cost of introducing the scheme at more than £½billion, raising around £150m a year for public transport improvements and an extra £ fines.

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The Mayor anticipates that charges will result in around 15% fewer vehicles on the road, making inner London safer for cyclists and pedestrians, less polluted and easier to drive through for those who are prepared to pay. Even if current traffic levels are cut by just 15%, bus travel within central London should become quicker.

According to Tony Grayling, transport specialist and associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, the biggest winners from the congestion charge will be low-income households who travel into London by bus.

"In the first year of the scheme, Ken Livingstone has pledged to spend £84 million on improving London's buses," says Mr Grayling "At rush hour there is virtual gridlock in central London and without congestion charging the capital's traffic problems will only get worse.

"It will take time for people to adjust and there will be teething problems, but in the long run, the Mayor's charge is the fairest and most effective option for reducing traffic congestion and pollution."

However, Angie Bray, Tory transport spokesman on the Greater London Authority, said: "Car usage has been falling steadily in Central London over the past decade, yet journey times have gone up.  The reason is more bus lanes, more roadworks and re-phasing of the vast majority of traffic lights to stay on red for longer.  Cars are not the problem; meddlesome anti- motorist traffic planners are.

"Congestion charging is entirely wrong for London. It is regressive, takes no account of people's ability to pay, and will cost a fortune to administer: £400 million in five years."

And Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, has called for the scheme to be postponed until the underground network is fully restored following the Central Line accident at Chancery Lane. "Public transport is already splitting at the seams. The last thing we need is more motorists charged off the roads and onto a public transport system that is unable to cope."

London will be the first city in the world to experiment with a scheme on this scale, although for 25 years Singapore has charged motorists to enter the island state's centre.

Last year, Durham brought in a £2 congestion charge on 1,000-year-old Saddler Street to staunch the flow of motorists trying to park outside the Cathedral, perched high on a bluff of the River Wear. The number of cars was cut from 2,000 a day to 200 within three months.

Six cities – Bristol, Leeds, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen – are monitoring the Livingstone experiment and will pounce if it is a success.

Cambridge, which has the most clogged streets in East Anglia, would seem a prime candidate to introduce the region's first charging scheme, in the hope that more motorists would be attracted to its park-and-ride, thus enabling public transport to flow much easier.

Ipswich and Colchester are both grappling with increasing volumes of traffic but congestion charging would make little sense. It would mean punitive charges for the hundreds of railway commuters each day who use the station car parks.

Ipswich, with its pedestrianised town centre, has three park-and-ride sites with others planned – a weekday £5 congestion charge might force more workers from out of town onto bus, but would be likely to drive shoppers elsewhere.

Colchester has not embraced park-and-ride and allows cars to drive down its High Street. Even if it was tempted to introduce charging to free the streets for a tram or light railway network, transport planners and councillors would have to consider very carefully the effect on the town's commercial heart.

Meanwhile, Government ministers are playing a cunning game. They introduced the legislation that allowed London's Mayor to bring in his charges, but they are not showing any enthusiasm for his scheme.

No doubt, if it's a success, they'll claim the credit. If it's a failure, it will be another stick with which the Labour Party will beat the renegade Mr Livingstone in next year's mayoral elections.

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You can pay on the day of your journey, or even for entire weeks, months or years. Selected garages and newsagents will also accept payment. Regular drivers can register for fast track payment to speed up the process.

Cameras will register every vehicle driving into the central zone and if you haven't register to pay, expect a letter containing an £80 fine, reduced to £40 if you pay within 14 calendar days from the date on the notice. Those who fail to pay within 28 days will incur a penalty of £120.

Motorbikes, disabled drivers, taxis, buses and coaches and emergency service vehicles are exempt. There will be 100% discounts for disabled blue badge holders, black cabs, licensed minicabs, firefighters travelling between stations for operational reasons and NHS staff using their cars as part of their work. However, shift workers such as nurses and firefighters will have to pay if they enter the zone to go to work.

There will be a 90% discount for residents living within the charging zone.

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