BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 24.02.02

Film: Terry Dignan reports on advice to the Government that the only solution to traffic congestion is to charge for road use.

TERRY DIGNAN: The way we travel harms our health, economy and environment. So our transport system is getting a hundred and eighty billion pounds more investment. And towns and cities are being allowed to charge drivers for using roads or office car parks. But while other parts of the country prevaricate over using this power, London's mayor intends pressing ahead. Some Labour MPs in the capital are deeply unhappy with Mayor Livingstone's plans to charge motorists for driving into central London. And nor are Tony Blair's transport ministers terribly enthusiastic. Indeed, there are signs they've gone off the whole idea of using congestion charging as part of a national strategy to tackle urban gridlock. Yet it's argued that without congestion charging, or something like it, it's hard to see how the Government is going to persuade many more car drivers to use public transport instead. LYNNE JONES MP: At the end of the day, we'll probably have to grasp the nettle that the only way to get motorists out of their cars, and into public transport, is to, is to start charging. KATE HOEY MP: Cars for many people, and particularly for women I think give them a sense of independence. And I don't think that you can try and use congestion charging just to get people out of their car. DIGNAN; Campaigning to be the capital's mayor, Ken Livingstone had a vision of a congestion-free London. He's ahead of cities like Birmingham with his proposal to charge motorists five pounds a day for driving into central London. While ministers say they've no power to stop him, they warn he must proceed cautiously. JOHN SPELLAR MP: This needs to be sensitively handled - that's precisely why we've said to the Mayor of London that, well this is his decision, he not only has to assure himself that the technology will work, and therefore the scheme is technically valid, but also that he's carrying the great majority of London opinion with him as well, in order to bring that scheme forward. DIGNAN: The boundary of the charging zone cuts across constituencies of Labour MPs like Kate Hoey. She says that here in Kennington, there'll be a price to pay for living on the wrong side of the road. HOEY: You can have a ridiculous situation where people just going about what would be their normal daily travelling, back and forward, are going to have to pay. We're going to see people you know who have to go into central London perhaps with a small business, perhaps a window cleaning business, living one side of the road, they won't pay, the other side they will. DIGNAN: But the body appointed by Labour ministers to advise them on transport policy backs Mayor Livingstone. The Commission for Integrated Transport argues that improvements in public transport on their own won't reduce congestion in our towns and cities. DAVID BEGG: If Ken Livingstone doesn't introduce congestion charging then the people that travel in London are going to be travelling at speeds which are no quicker than the horse and cart was a century ago. It's just incredibly inefficient, imposing a huge cost on London business. So the Mayor's right to try and get in a congestion charging scheme as quickly as he can. DIGNAN: Birmingham. The city's prosperity was founded on the motor car. Yet today it's said road traffic growth is costing the regional economy here more than a billion pounds a year. And in the next three decades rush hour car journeys are forecast to rise by nearly two hundred thousand a day. Companies like A. E. Harris and Co complain angrily about congestion. The firm makes metal components which are delivered by road to customers throughout the United Kingdom. RUSSELL LUCKOCK: Traffic congestion increases, that puts up costs of getting materials in, goods out, of this factory. On certain occasions we're having to pay a premium for motorcycle riders to get urgent components out because they can get through the traffic quickly, and that puts up our costs. It doesn't help at all when your van is stuck out say, three miles from the City Centre. DIGNAN: When the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, was Transport Secretary, he asked groups of experts to find solutions to the traffic problems of urban areas. The conclusion they've come to here in the West Midlands is that you won't get many motorists to leave their cars at home simply by spending more money on public transport. They've told ministers congestion charging is essential because many commuters find driving to work is relatively cheap. But the Government's policy of leaving it to local authorities to introduce charging schemes means it's unlikely to happen in many areas in the foreseeable future, as even ministers now concede. In Labour's ten year transport plan, John Prescott warned that compared with buses and trains, motoring was likely to become even more affordable. Yet his plan aims to cut congestion in cities like Birmingham by eight per cent by twenty-ten. According to some Labour MPs here - and those advising ministers - it can't be done without charging. BEGG: Now we are absolutely clear in our advice. What we are saying is that you do not reduce congestion in Britain without measures such as congestion charging. Yes it's politically difficult. They probably don't want to discuss this at present. But they have to decide how they are going to tackle congestion and whether the policies that are in place are going to be sufficient. JONES: Although motorists squeal about the costs of motoring, in real terms it's stayed pretty steady but whereas costs of public transport have increased quite dramatically, so we've got to even the balance as between those two - or the different sorts of transport. But at the end of the day we just cannot go on as we are. DIGNAN And Birmingham businesses like this one would agree. Yet they have fiercely objected to attempts by Labour councillors to introduce both congestion and workplace charging. To the dismay of those who advise the Government, opposition to the idea, in Birmingham and other towns and cities, remains strong. LUCKOCK: This factory is right in the heart of the city of Birmingham. Therefore all my employees would be subjected to being, who come in by car, would be subjected to additional cost. They wouldn't want to come in, they could go and get jobs elsewhere and that would cause me much grief. In fact I'm not at all sure that we should be able to continue and function as a viable proposition. DIGNAN: That's a warning councillors ignore at their peril. But their biggest fear would be losing jobs to other areas unless neighbouring authorities also introduced charging. JONES: I mean the example in Birmingham is that, if Birmingham City Council wants to charge people to go into the city centre, the traders there will say, "Well people will stop coming in, and they'll go to out of town centres like Merryhill, in Dudley," so it's got to be an overall strategy for a region, if not for the whole country. DIGNAN: The Government's transport plan, published just two years ago, assumes at least twenty towns and cities will introduce congestion or workplace charging. Yet the transport minister, a Birmingham MP, doesn't believe it's his job to encourage it. SPELLAR: There's a considerable demand and understandable demand that many local issues should be decided by local people who are best able to understand the local circumstances and to understand the, understand the best response. JONES: Well I think this is government ducking its responsibilities here. It's ready to interfere in many areas of policy where local authority is - local authorities are competent to take decisions. ACTUALITY: "Would you like to be the chauffeur?" DIGNAN: At the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon near Warwick schoolchildren learn about the so-called golden age of British-made cars. ACTUALITY: "Are you happy with that? Good." DIGNAN: When they grow up and learn how to drive Labour promises the roads will be less congested. That's assuming twenty towns and cities introduce charging by twenty-ten. But ministers are now backing away from this figure. SPELLAR: You do have to have a degree of, of prediction in order to be able to get some shape of a national picture. And, I think that probably twenty would be now a slightly optimistic assumption. BEGG: That has an impact on the amount of revenue that will be available to spend on transport - up to three billion pounds is forecast to come from these new charges and it has a disproportionate effect on reducing congestion - around a quarter of all of the congestion reduction forecast by the government by twenty-ten will come from these congestion charging schemes. DIGNAN: Which may be why Chancellor Gordon Brown publicly supports them. The Integrated Transport Commission hopes he'll back, using satellite technology, to charge motorists on any UK road that's congested. In return, vehicle excise duty would be axed and petrol taxes cut. Congestion would decrease by forty-four per cent. But it would mean extending Treasury plans to charge haulage companies for road use. BEGG: It's a type of technology which is already in place and which the Government are proposing to bring in for lorries. So it's proposed to be a distance tax for lorries. So lorries will be taxed on the basis of the distances they are travelling in Britain. That same system can be used to try and bring in congestion charging for cars. ACTUALITY "This motorway starts a new era in road travel." DIGNAN: But it didn't last long. When Government ministers opened the first motorways, little did they know they faced a losing battle to keep them clear of congestion. Motorists who feel they get a raw deal from Labour believe the answer is better roads - and more roads. LUCKOCK: I mean the, the percentage they take from fuel is almost criminal, almost obscene and not to invest it in better methods of transportation is also obscene. Road transport is the best solution. And we want better roads, wider roads, double-deck roads if necessary to get transport and goods moving. DIGNAN: Labour hoped to curb the motor car's power. But ministers worry about motorists' views, especially after the fuel tax protests. Indeed a third of the budget for the ten year transport plan - fifty-nine billion pounds - will go towards roads. While advisers on transport are sceptical, ministers now appear to show enthusiasm for road building. SPELLAR: There's been considerable under-investment in transport and there is a real need to be getting more investment into transport and not just in the big ticket items of the main railway systems or indeed the Highways Agency the main trunk roads, important that those are. A lot of local roads, a lot of local bypasses that we're, that we're putting through, but we'll be dealing with real congestion locally and making a big difference to free flow of traffic in those areas. BEGG: It may be that if you start to build more roads in two thousand and eight, two thousand and nine, that if you take a snapshot of two thousand and ten that there's a reduction in congestion. But these extra roads by, freeing up congestion, will attract more traffic and by two thousand and fifteen, two thousand and twenty, we could effectively be back to square one. DIGNAN: Although London is due to become the first big city to charge motorists for driving to work, few seem likely to follow. Ministers hope better roads and public transport will reduce congestion. But their advisers warn any solution that avoids charging car drivers more won't work.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.