As the West Midlands’ economy continues to pay the price for gridlocked roads, Chris Kelly, chairman of truck dealer Keltruck, explains why congestion charges are not the answer

Let some real people sort it out
Oct 11 2006

As the West Midlands’ economy continues to pay the price for gridlocked roads, Chris Kelly, managing director [sic] of haulage firm [sic] Keltruck, explains why congestion charges are not the answer

When London was debating congestion charges, the streets were clogged up with roadworks. Traffic was slowed to a crawl, helping statistics to look better after the £5-a-day (now £8) charge was finally introduced.

The scene in the West Midlands seems to be mirroring this situation, as Centro and seven local councils do the Government’s bidding by paving the way for a congestion charge – or even nine – of our very own.

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, was too left-wing for Labour at the time he introduced the charge. In the West Midlands, a majority of the organisations involved are run by Conservative councillors.

But most councillor portfolio holders defer to their highways officers and would never think of challenging their pearls of wisdom on traffic management.

Coun Gary Clarke, the chairman of Centro-PTA, calls for “partnership, determination and a shared vision” to tackle the region’s “gridlock”.

I agree with Gary. What worries me is that despite all the rhetoric about consultation, a decision has already been taken that we shall have a congestion charge.

The aim is to manipulate the statistics to suit. It is interesting to note that Tom McGrath of Centro is already writing letters promising fair play – but asking us to send responses to the very consultants who helped with the plan in the first place.

What about some independent body to collate the responses, Tom and Gary?

It’s true the roads are getting slower. Congestion is costing the regional economy a fortune and public transport alternatives are not good enough. But a congestion charge – and maybe an extra parking tax or even a tax on jobs as set out in the “Gridlock or Growth” report – is not inevitable.

Is the only way to free the roads to make them so expensive that only the rich can afford to drive on them?

What a Socialistic plan this is! If you have plenty of money the roads are to be freed-up for you. The rest can stand in the rain waiting for a bus.

Coun Clarke refers to the social exclusion created by poor public transport and he has a point – what about the social exclusion caused by pricing hard-working families off the roads Gary?

There are ways of freeing our roads which do not require massive investment and would be much more effective than a series of new taxes.

I believe the target of simply reducing the growth of journey times throughout the West Midlands to be entirely unacceptable. We should be demanding a reduction in actual journey times – this could be achieved.

What happened to the “quick wins” transport policy agreed by the local authorities. It seems to have been all but ignored by all of them except Birmingham?

A list of over 200 – for a start – was drawn up a couple of years ago. Hardly any have been implemented except in Birmingham.

Highways engineers simply do their own bidding under the Local Transport Plan, that document designed to frustrate motorists out of their cars.

In Birmingham, engineers have been released from the dead hand of Socialism and respond to the needs of motorists. Why isn’t the same thing happening elsewhere?

Sadly, other than in Birmingham, even the Conservative-controlled councils do not know what “their” officers are doing.

These quick wins were simple but effective ways of reducing journey times through modifications that also reduce pollution via emission reduction. Yet they have been abandoned or never adopted at all by most of the councils.

The Centro report wants to reverse even the little progress which has been made with yet another batch of queue-creating bus lanes and chaos in Birmingham when they try to build a Metro line across Five Ways. Under “major schemes going ahead”, the document talks about the Metro extension and Burnt Tree Island.

I am outraged to see that the Metro route will pass by the major Russell’s Hall Hospital in Dudley, despite dreadful car parking problems brought about by hospital management who appear not to give a cuss for the problems of their customers, the patients and their loved-ones.

Centro – which wants to spend £1.5 billion on the Metro – claims the route was drawn up some years before the hospital had such a major extension, and that it would hold up the project now to connect the line directly to the hospital. Well I say hold it up even longer, then, and get it right. You are still years away yet you say you can’t design it in time? Well get someone who can.

In the Far East the tram would go into the building itself to keep everyone warm and dry. The folk of the Black Country deserve very much better than this sort of useless planning. As for the Burnt Tree Island junction, described as one of the busiest in the UK, I am saddened that the plan was to change this from a busy but free-flowing traffic island, to a multi traffic light junction with all the attendant pollution from standing vehicles.

It now seems a flyover could be back on the agenda – I very much hope so. Why can’t councils bring in the entrepreneurial thinking of the private sector and ask if it would not be possible to think about, for example, a flyover of prefabricated steel section as is often used in the USA?

The EU is paying for new motorways in Latvia. What are our MEPs doing? Why can’t they get more of our money back for roads in the West Midlands?

The heartland of the British economy is choked up with little or no investment or proper planning to tackle our chronic congestion and with councils like Sandwell and Wolverhampton creating more.

What do we get? Traffic management. The idea being that bureaucrats can manipulate traffic lights and warning signs to make the roads run freely.

All over the country traffic lights sprout up creating more congestion and pollution. A free roundabout in Walsall is being replaced by a five-station traffic light system. The new lights at Oxford Street, Bilston, have created delays.

I am chairman of a heavy truck distribution business that I started from scratch 25 years ago, now employing 500 or so people in the Midlands.

Having spent a lifetime in the sector I find myself with time to ask such questions, time I never had when driving the business and time most Managing Directors can only dream about.

The big question that I have asked time and time again then is – who are really the architects of our local transport plan?

And who has the opportunity to contribute to the debate on what should or should not happen with our transport system? Certainly not the business sector – people have tried and given up in despair as their views are entirely disregarded.

Things cannot go on like this. There has to be real consultation, not the sort of so-called consultation Tom McGrath at Centro considers is good enough.

The truth is there isn’t any, and the people who have got us to this point are telling us that they know what is best for our future.

I say to them you have failed miserably. You need to move over. Let some real people, who honestly care about the hard working folk of this region, sort out the mess that you’ve created.

Charging the hard-working folk of this region even more to travel to work is not the answer.

The plan to do so is nothing more than a cop-out. We should take the steering wheel of our economy away from these bureaucrats.

Andrew Bentley, MInst SMM
Head of Vehicle Contracts and Marketing