Express & Star
Blackmail claim on C-charges
The Government has been accused of “blackmailing” councils in the West Midlands by forcing them to consider introducing congestion charging. Tory councils have resisted the push for charging, saying it could force businesses and jobs out of the region, but the Government is said to be using its financial muscle to force congestion charging on to the agenda.
Councillor Angus Adams, Dudley’s cabinet member for transportation, said: “I remain to be convinced by the arguments for congestion charging. An improved public transport system would be a far better solution.”
But strings attached to a £2.5 billion pot of Government money for investment in transport innovation – called TIF funding – mean any bid for a share must include road charging.
“There is a blackmail element here,” said Mr Adams. “We all recognise that something must be done about transport in the West Midlands, but I remain to be convinced that congestion charging is necessary.
“But we are between a rock and a hard place. We are being coerced into considering something we do not believe in against our better judgement.”
And he slammed new proposals for zoning areas within a congestion charging district, adding: “It simply wouldn’t work in the West Midlands. People will simply move from a high tariff zone to a low tariff zone, and that could mean the region losing businesses as they move out. We have lost enough businesses in recent years.”
Mr Adams’s claims are disputed by the Department of Transport.
A spokesman said: “We are not forcing anyone into bidding for TIF money – that is a decision local authorities can make for themselves. TIF is in parallel to other sources of revenue they can bid for through normal channels. If they want to look at some form of demand management scheme, however, they can bid for TIF.”
The West Midlands’ seven district councils – Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell, Coventry, Birmingham and Solihull – are currently continuing a £3 million Government-funded study into congestion charging alongside regional development agency Advantage West Midlands (AWM).
The first part of the study, started back in 2005, cost £1.4 million. The second phase is being funded with around £1.6 million of further Government cash.
AWM spokesman Neil Skitt said: “We believe that road pricing will happen. So the study is important because the introduction of any form of road pricing in the West Midlands has to be right for our region. Road pricing that holds back our economy will be no good for anyone. We therefore have to look into how we can make road pricing work for the region and help rather than hinder our economic progress.”
Gary Clarke, Walsall Conservative councillor and chairman of West Midlands passenger transport executive Centro, said that as far as the region was concerned there was no way they would consider adopting a London-style congestion charge.
“Each of the seven districts of the West Midlands have their own priorities, but we are all working together, and have been doing so for the last three years.
“Doing nothing is not the answer, but there are lots of issues that have to be considered first. What we do need is to improve the public transport system, whether it be the Metro, the buses or the rail network.
“There is a huge amount to do before we even get to looking at anything else. There are more important issues to deal with first, including moving forward with the Metro extensions, Birmingham’s New Street station and motorway junctions.”
Senior Midlands Conservative activist Chris Kelly, chairman of West Bromwich-based truck dealership Keltruck, said: “There are many other measures which could be taken before even considering a congestion charge, including aggressively looking at the bottlenecks that daily hold up hundreds of thousands of commuters and commercial traffic on our roads.
“Until councils actually do this we will always be looking for other misplaced options such as congestion charging.
“Only one council in the West Midlands is aggressively doing this, and that is Birmingham, and all credit to them.”
The Government is currently facing intense objections to its road charging plans, with some 1.8 million people signing up to an e-petition on the Downing Street website opposing the idea.
One option to a flat-rate congestion charge, as in London, would be to divide the country into road-pricing zones, charging people more for driving in cities than in the country.
But there are fears this could lead to a kind of “spy in the car” black box attached to every vehicle to keep track of where people drive.
In December, a high-powered report from former British Airways chief executive Sir Rod Eddington suggested pay-as-you-go motoring, charging drivers up to £1.30 a day to use the busiest routes in the West Midlands, would raise £28 billion a year which could be used to improve public transport, cut greenhouse gases and reduce congestion.
He said projected congestion would add £10 billion a year to business costs and could be halved by road pricing, which he called “an economic no-brainer”.
Business leaders in the region have fierceley attacked the idea of congestion charging, warning it could have a devastating effect and destroy thousands of jobs.
Despite the £2.2 billion-a-year cost of traffic gridlock in the region, Birmingham Chamber of Commerce has suggested up to a third of firms would move out of the Black Country, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry to avoid the £1.30-per-mile tax.
A Chamber report in February did support a pay-as-you-drive spy-in-the-car satellite system, but said it would have to be put into operation across the UK in one go.