Congestion charges: issue that split a city in two

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IT IS an issue which has divided Edinburgh at the start of the 21st century, but congestion charging has been on the agenda since the early 1960s.

It was then that the government, concerned by rising traffic levels, commissioned the Smeed Report. The charging suggestion was quickly shelved - Britain’s cities were relatively free-flowing and the almost universal solution to congestion was to build more and bigger roads - and nearly 30 years passed before it was back in favour. In the early 1990s, two very different cities - London and Edinburgh - began to look again at the idea for very different reasons.

In London, the situation was straightforward - traffic was grinding to a halt and people were getting angry, some business threatened to leave and Ben Elton was even moved to write a comic novel called Gridlock about the problem.

Yet Edinburgh appeared an unlikely candidate for congestion charging - its congestion seemed a minor problem compared to the likes of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and even Glasgow.

But Edinburgh had an unusual city centre road layout - it had resisted the temptation to knock down historic buildings to accommodate the growing number of cars and the one "urban freeway" built - the Western Approach Road - caused uproar and plans to extend it across the city through The Meadows were ditched.

When David Begg, then Edinburgh transport convener, put congestion charging on the city’s agenda, it aroused fierce passions - and continues to do so. The plan has split the city - and in the run-up to the vote, the outcome is too close to call.

Until 2001, congestion charging was simply an idea, but then the Labour government passed legislation allowing councils to introduce it. Labour had come to power in 1997 promising an integrated transport policy that would revolutionise travel in Britain, but taking on the car lobby is a politically dangerous step and Westminster passed the buck to local authorities.

Edinburgh council leader Donald Anderson and Prof Begg’s successor as transport convener, Andrew Burns, were among the few to push ahead with the contentious issue. According to estimates from those supporting charges, traffic in Edinburgh will grow by 50 per cent over the next two decades. People already complaining bitterly about delays at the busiest bottlenecks would soon be further enraged by significantly longer tailbacks, more pollution and a poorer quality of life.

Councillors decided bold action was needed before it was too late - and they began to develop plans for congestion charging. They are supported by the highly-vocal, well-organised environmental lobby.

However, a powerful lobby of residents, business leaders and politicians is ranged against the charges. They believe the council has come up with the wrong scheme, one which will damage business, cause traffic chaos within the cordons, create new and dangerous rat runs and see little reduction in pollution.

Prof Begg, now a government adviser as chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport, said the poll marks a stark choice.

He said: "If you were to ask me 20 years ago what the solution was, I wouldn’t have gone for charging. I would have said we needed better public transport. But I’ve learned some hard lessons. Paris, with a wonderful public transport system, has a level of traffic congestion much, much greater than Edinburgh. In Munich, they are losing people from public transport because it’s BMW territory so politicians are loathe to do anything seen as anti-car."

Prof Begg said what does work is simple - "a classic combination of carrot and stick".

But even he is uncertain whether Edinburgh is ready for charges: "It may be people in Edinburgh take that view...but if they vote no, they need to be clear [there will be] continuing rises in congestion in Edinburgh, assuming the economy continues to grow. I understand why people are reticent, but it’s not as if we are debating a plan B to tackle congestion."

The opposition to the current scheme dispute the idea that voters face a straightforward choice between a city marching towards gridlock and a cleaner, quieter one free from tailbacks. Many would agree to some form of congestion charging but believe the council’s plan to have two cordons around Edinburgh is dangerously flawed.

Edinburgh Communities against Congestion Charging argues a two-cordon approach will hem in motorists on both sides, causing an increase in traffic in the suburbs and returning the city to the days before the bypass was built. They point to the danger this would cause around suburban schools near main thoroughfares such as Ferry Road.

The Liberal Democrats’ position is that more carrots are needed before the stick can be applied - significant transport improvements, they say, must be brought in before any action to discourage motorists.

But perhaps the most devastating arguments against the council’s plan comes from the business community, who fear traffic will simply be displaced elsewhere.

So, far from reducing pollution, charging would actually create more by persuading people to drive further - and congestion would simply be moved elsewhere.

The city council has tried to address the issue by offering an hour’s free parking at off-peak times on weekdays to offset the cost of the 2 charge. Shoppers would not pay any more when driving into the city, but commuters - the main target of congestion charging - would be caught. However, business leaders believe this will cause confusion and want congestion charging limited to rush-hour.

Robert Winter, a leading Edinburgh businessman and a spokesman for the City Centre Retail Group, said: "The general view among retailers is there are times of the day when there is congestion in Edinburgh - first thing in the morning and at the end of the day. Action should be taken to deal with that but we should not impose a barrier to the city centre all through the day. We’re not against the principle of congestion charging. What we are opposed to is the current plan on the table."

Tonight the rival points of view will be debated at the EICC. There will doubtless be anger, accusations and countless statistics from both sides as the fight to win the referendum - and the hearts and minds of a divided city - heats up.

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