Congestion charge should be a last resort
May 22 2007
By Neil Connor, Chief Reporter
Neil Connor assesses the views of about 100 people who were at yesterday’s Birmingham Post and NEC Group Big Debate to discuss traffic congestion
It seems general opinion on whether road pricing could solve gridlock is more entangled and complex than Spaghetti Junction is to a tourist.
It seems simple. One day motorists could wake up and find themselves having to pay a levy to enter the region’s most crowded district – Birmingham city centre.
So how does a debate on this topic encompass issues such as ensuring that buses are not considered by the public to be the means of transport for “failures” or putting blocks on the development of green areas that straddle the M42 corridor?
How does the value of 20mph zones add to the argument and why is it important that nobody, apparently, from Birmingham City Council was at the Big Debate at the ICC?
Simply put, congestion charging impacts not only on our daily trek into the office.
It could affect everything from the productivity of businesses to the level of car ownership among the more affluent parts of society.
But a common theory – at least until yesterday – was that the Government, business leaders and environmentalists were generally for road pricing and that motorists (ie the general public) were against.
How wrong could we have been?
Brian Summers, who represents the regional business sector on the West Midlands Regional Assembly and was also encompassing Birmingham Chamber of Commerce’s view within his speech, began with a very significant point.
He told the audience at the International Convention Centre that not all businesses were in favour of congestion charging.
Moments later, these comments were emphasised by concerns from a handful of Black Country businessmen.
Chris Kelly, chairman of truck dealership group, Keltruck, based in West Bromwich, said: “I do not believe there is a need for congestion charging, I believe we have every opportunity to tackle congestion by tackling bottlenecks.”
George Munro, from the Black Country Chamber, put clear distance between the view of his organisation and that of the neighbouring Birmingham Chamber, which favours road pricing that is accompanied by investment in public transport.
“We do not favour congestion charging,” he said. Then referring again to the theme of the lack of investment in the current transport system, he gave an example of when he was driving across a congested island in Dudley.
“I had to get out of the car to see why there was so much congestion, and it was easy to see that the minor road had priority over the rest of the roads.
“I called a council transportation official down to the location, and he admitted the council did not realise this.
“There are plenty of examples of this across the country. There is a total lack of investment in the roads across the country, and if this was improved upon it could make a difference.”
Midland account manager Peter Roberts launched a petition against road pricing which gathered 1.8 million signatures.
The 46-year-old, from Telford, was never involved in politics and had never expected to be a public figure.
However, after his campaign attracted so much support from the public – support which was understood to have had a profound impact on Ministers – he has become a figurehead for those against congestion charging.
He said the Government was not interested in improving the public transport system or in forcing councils to manage their own roads better.
Mr Roberts believes the Government does not support a “carrot” approach to forcing people off the roads – only the stick approach which is aimed at the wallet of the motorist.
He said: “It is a tax too far that will be put on the people without the backing of them. It is a stealth tax.
“The London system has generated £900 million and this is what the Government is looking to extend – the money that can be made from congestion charging. Also, none of it will go back into public transport.
“The Government is not interested in just getting people off the roads. If that was the case, they could just allow people into the city centre on certain days if they have specific registration plates.”
And on the subject of bad road planning causing congestion, Mr Roberts said: “We do not generally have congestion in Telford because the roads are well designed.
“We have four areas with congestion and that is where the council has introduced traffic lights and islands.”
As he had heavily criticised the introduction of 20mph zones on country lanes earlier, it was clear that Mr Roberts is no fan of local council transport officials.
Former Transport Minister John Spellar was also highly sceptical about congestion charging.
The Labour Warley MP called for better thinking with regards to transport policies, highlighting the use of hard shoulders on the M42 at busy times.
He said: “If we had a congestion charge it would be a tax primarily on vehicles in the urban areas and I do not think a tax on urban dwellers will work.
“To say to people that because of your social circumstances we are going to charge you a tax, that is going to be unattractive.”
And finally, was the view of the environmentalists.
Chris Crean, the regional chairman of Friends of the Earth, was perhaps the only firm advocate of congestion charging.
He also spoke highly of buses although he acknowledged they needed a massive image change if they were to attract the sort of people who would be leaving their cars at home under congestion charging.
He said: “We need to get away from this view that was expressed by Margaret Thatcher that bus travel is for failures.
“In London everyone travels on buses and there is no stigma attached.”
Gerald Kells, regional policy officer for the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, expressed concerns that businesses would choose to base themselves in more rural areas – such as the M42 corridor – if Birmingham city centre was not an attractive proposition.
It was agreed by all that the repercussions of congestion charging would be felt far wider than Birmingham’s central area.
With this in mind, participants at the Big Debate called for massive investment in public transport before any road pricing plan was put into practice.
And if this investment solved the traffic problems and resulting pollution on its own, then those both for and against congestion charging would be more than satisfied.