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Congestion Charging

Volume 670: debated on Monday 14 March 2005

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What is their latest assessment of the effect of the congestion charge on businesses in London and of the effect of a substantial increase in that charge.

My Lords, the London congestion charge scheme is the responsibility of the Mayor of London and Transport for London. It is for them to assess the full range of impacts of the scheme, both for business and the wider community. We have not sought to duplicate the monitoring regime that the Mayor has put in place, but we continue to follow the scheme's progress. Any decision to increase the charge is a matter for the Mayor.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that since London is a capital city, the Government should look at the effects of the congestion charge, particularly on businesses in the city, both inside and outside the charging area, particularly as the Mayor's consultation has not really included businesses, which are, after all, the most badly affected?

My Lords, as I indicated, it is for the Mayor to carry out the evaluation and consultation on any future changes. Of course. the department monitors the development of the scheme. The House will recognise that in certain crucial areas the department has some general responsibility. The Department for Transport states that there is an 80 per cent reduction in traffic entering the zone, a 15 per cent reduction in traffic within the zone, and there is clearly an improvement in bus reliability, which is important to many Londoners. The congestion charge has cut by 30 per cent on average the amount of traffic inside the zone, so we consider it to be a success.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the John Lewis Partnership has conducted a vigorous campaign against the congestion charge, both in London and Edinburgh, through the medium of the local press? If the Government's congestion charging policy is to have any chance of success, it is essential that people really understand the impact on business. Is the Minister aware that at the same time as the John Lewis Partnership was complaining, the Underground was in turmoil, Americans were staying away from London, and the terrorist threat was very high? Will he make sure that some independent assessment is made of these facts, so that rumours are not the basis on which people make decisions?

My Lords, the John Lewis Partnership is an important business, but in carrying out that survey it was vulnerable to exactly the points that the noble Lord indicated. It was not able to, and did not, discount the wider factors involved. As noble Lords will recall, the catastrophic problems with the Central Line during that period had a direct impact on Oxford Street, for an obvious reason, and international factors affected foreign tourists. I agree with the noble Lord on that. It is for the Mayor of London to carry out an evaluation of the scheme. No doubt he is taking wider factors into account, which perhaps it was in the interests of the John Lewis Partnership to consider.

My Lords, given the Government's clear statement of the benefits of the congestion charge, as my noble friend has just set out, what are the Government doing to ensure that those benefits are known more widely among other local authorities in the UK? In particular, are the Government giving some incentive within the local transport plan settlement to encourage local authorities to go for congestion charging?

My Lords, we have indicated that there are funds for initiatives that involve innovation with regard to traffic management. The whole House will recognise that road congestion is one of the greatest single factors that affects us all, but it affects cities particularly acutely. That is why cities must take their own decisions on this matter. We respect that the citizens of Edinburgh decided that the congestion charge was not in their interests. We have no doubt that other conurbations will take a rather different perspective on this, probably sooner rather than later, given that at present traffic in our city centres is controlled by bringing it to a standstill through congestion.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are quite different findings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction between the Greater London Authority and Westminster City Council, which has done its own survey? It found that 47 per cent of visitors say that the existing scheme has a negative impact and 69 per cent say that an increase in the charge from £5 to £8 would be very negative. Some 70 per cent would like the hours to be altered. Will he remind the House what power the Greater London Authority has on this? Does the Mayor have an absolute decision and can do what he likes irrespective of whether the councils affected have views on it? Or must he take their views into consideration and reconcile those differences in findings?

My Lords, of course the Mayor must take into account such important representations from any inner London local authority. The Westminster authority is important in those terms, although again it will be realised that many of the benefits of the congestion charge are emerging over time. Some instinctive responses in the first instance were belied by developments. I recall dreadful anxiety about the future of London theatres when the charge came in, and yet London theatres do not seem to be going through a trough in ticket sales. Of course, the Mayor must consult, but the powers and the decision are his, and he must take responsibility for any decision that he reaches.

My Lords, my noble friend has already indicated the benefits as far as traffic congestion is concerned. What are the benefits to air quality, because that will surely be of great importance, not only for the people who visit London, but for those people who work in the businesses to which we are referring?

My Lords, I do not have figures on that, because, as my noble friend will, I think, appreciate, the congestion charge area is limited in its range and therefore in its ability to tackle pollution. The charge makes a contribution to that by reducing traffic, although part of the scheme is to increase the use of buses, which have enormous benefits and move more people, but which, nevertheless, also contribute to air pollution problems. We would need to examine the benefits of a wider area than the limited area currently covered by the congestion charge before we could evaluate effectively the environmental improvements.