On Saturday The Herald reported that the SNP plan to introduce a Congestion Charge in Edinburgh, similar to the one in London where drivers pay £15 to enter the cordon at peak time. Formally announcing this on Saturday means it comes a day after tens of thousands of people in Edinburgh started voting by post.
There can be no doubt that we have to work to reduce congestion and cut climate emissions in Edinburgh, particularly where people are commuting into our Capital from surrounding Local Authorities. This can only really be done by improving public transport and cutting the number of cars entering the city. Extra parking, or improved traffic light sequencing are not the answer.
I’ve said that Edinburgh needs to work with surrounding Local Authorities to improve public transport links, and also invest in Park & Ride schemes. That will need collaborative working, and a regional strategy – I’m not convinced that the SNP plan to unilaterally introduce a Work Place Parking Levy and a Congestion Charge is the answer. Indeed, even they appear to be endorsing the view that it is simply part of a “War on Motorists” – unhelpful rhetoric given the challenges we face.
Keep in mind that the SNP plan to introduce a Work Place Parking Levy and a Congestion Charge at the same time as increasing rail fares. This is incoherent at best, and certainly not joined up policy making.
This is how the SNP describe their policy: “We will introduce a commuter charging zone at the city boundary to discourage those living outwith the city from driving in, encouraging them to switch to bus, tram, train, foot or cycle. No Edinburgh resident – including those living in South Queensferry and the western villages – will ever have to pay the charge.”
Leave aside the notion of people commuting by “foot” from Livingston, let’s have a think about what that could mean:
- No charge for driving a SUV from South Queensferry into central Edinburgh, but somebody driving from Loanhead to visit a loved one at Marie Curie Hospice in my Ward would have to pay.
- Drivers taking a break on long trips to the north or south at the cafes just off the bypass in my Ward would have to pay.
- People enjoying Hillend Ski Slope would have to pay to access Craigdon Mountain Sports in my Ward.
- Frontline NHS staff starting early and finishing late would be exempt from the Workplace Parking Levy, but would have to pay the Congestion Charge if travelling from outside Edinburgh.
- Keyworkers with unsociable working hours would have to pay, despite often not having access to public transport.
- Tradesmen coming into Edinburgh would have to pay, and the charge would be transferred to customers.
- It would also essentially mean the reintroduction of a toll for driving from Fife to Edinburgh… from the party that removed it!
- Most important of all, my family in Fife would be charged for visiting me!
No doubt some of these issues could be resolved, and I would also expect exemptions for Blue Badge holders. Like the Workplace Parking Levy, however, there is a risk that a Congestion Charge would simply gentrify driving. Indeed, if a Congestion Charge is introduced alongside increased public transport costs the consequences could be worse than that.
So what is the solution to Edinburgh’s congestion problem? Firstly, I think a Congestion Charge could work, but only as part of a region wide transport strategy focussed on public transport improvements. This would mean working collaboratively with surrounding Local Authorities to make public transport a cheaper and more efficient alternative to driving. The current SNP “plan” to introduce a Congestion Charge whilst raising rail prices is bonkers!
Back in 2005 I was one of the 25.6% of Edinburgh residents that voted for a Congestion Charge. It was a bit of a muddle, but I thought it could be made to work. Almost 20 years later, things have changed. Congestion has got worse, the Climate Emergency is now a reality and Fuel Duty is on the way out.
The last point is important, around half of what is paid for petrol and diesel goes straight to the Government via Fuel Duty and VAT. Fuel Duty income in 2021/22 is estimated to be £26B – around £950 per household. The switch to electric vehicles, however, means this income will dwindle. Of course it is possible that a way could be devised to tax electric vehicle charging, but it is more likely that we will switch to “Road Pricing”. Road Pricing is similar to Fuel Duty in that if you drive more you will pay more, but it also offers other opportunities. It could mean people pay more to drive in congested areas/times and Blue Badge Holders could be exempt. People taking journeys served by public transport could even be targeted. The possibilities are endless, and it enjoys modest levels of public support.
The House of Commons Transport Committee has published a paper on the subject, and the Scottish Government are also looking at it. Of course the Congestion Charge is a form of Road Pricing, but it is clumsy and indiscriminate.
I feel that the UK and Scottish Government should be working together on national Road Pricing now so that we can move away from Fuel Duty smoothly. They could make it cost neutral, but I think it could be used to manage congestion and pollution across the UK. If that happens in Edinburgh, the Council working with surrounding Local Authorities will still be key.