City presses on with 'biased' toll question

CITY leaders are to press ahead with the controversial road tolls referendum in February after defeating last-ditch attempts to change the "biased" question.

The Labour-run administration rejected attempts to put a more straightforward question to voters and refused to abandon its plans to enclose a "propaganda" leaflet with the ballot paper.

Although the city council has secured some backing from business leaders for the 2-a-day scheme, it is facing a major battle to win the support of voters.

Tough opposition is expected from the Federation of Small Businesses, the Princes Street Traders Association and retail giants such as John Lewis and Jenners, who fear tolls will drive shoppers away.

Ballot papers will be issued on February 7, with voters having 14 days to respond.

Opposition politicians have branded the referendum plans - which were drawn up without consultation with the Electoral Commission - "an affront to democracy".

The Evening News revealed last week how electoral experts had criticised the "completely biased" referendum question.

The ballot paper will state: "The leaflet enclosed with this ballot paper gives information on the council’s transport proposals for Edinburgh.

"The council’s preferred strategy includes congestion charging and increased transport investment funded by it. Do you support the council’s preferred strategy?"

The city’s Tories and Lib Dems joined forces last night in a last-minute bid to have the referendum question changed to: "Should the Edinburgh congestion charging scheme be introduced?"

Opposition parties also claimed the inclusion of an "information leaflet" - as it has been billed by the council - was likely to lead to claims that the referendum was biased. Lib Dem group leader Jenny Dawe said: "There should be a simple, clear and unbiased question and the ballot paper should not be accompanied by an information leaflet."

Tory group leader Iain Whyte claimed the referendum plans failed Electoral Commission guidelines, including that the question should prompt an immediate response, not contain jargon, not be too long and not use "loaded" words or phrases.

He added: "What is being proposed is an affront to democracy."

But city transport leader Andrew Burns said critics of congestion charging were resorting to arguing over "processes" after losing the argument over facts.

"There will be a fair question and a fair information leaflet," he added. "Our proposals have been pored over independently by a QC and have been fully ratified against Electoral Commission guidelines."

Labour defeated the bid to change the wording of the referendum by 29 votes to 28 after almost three hours of debate at the City Chambers.

The council had earlier voted to accept the findings of the public inquiry held earlier this year and press ahead with the poll, with Labour councillors attacking the transport policies of the Tories and the Lib Dems.

Councillor Burns said a 1.6 billion Lib Dem "shopping list" of alternatives to congestion charging was "farcical and comical".

And he said the Tories had offered no solutions at all to deal with predicted growth in traffic and congestion.

But he was accused of promoting a revenue-raising scheme that would simply shift congestion to other parts of the city.

However, Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said critics of road tolls were "crying wolf" over the economic impact on the city.

But John Gaffney, director of Jenners, said: "Benefits from congestion charging could be outweighed by the damage it does to the economy of the city."

Labour’s referendum question: 29 votes

"The leaflet enclosed with this ballot paper gives information on the council’s transport proposals for Edinburgh.

"The council's preferred strategy includes congestion charging and increased transport investment funded by it. Do you support the council’s preferred strategy?"

Opposition parties’ alternative: 28 votes

"Should the Edinburgh congestion charging scheme be introduced?"

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