Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 180 - 199)



  180. Do you think that more could be done to make public opinion more supportive of congestion charges?
  (Professor Begg) Yes.

  181. Who do you think should be doing it?
  (Professor Begg) I think there is more of a role for the Government on this. The mistake that we made—and I speak as someone who worked on the draft of the White Paper on transport in 1998, which gave local authorities and the Mayor of London the power to introduce congestion charging—was to underestimate how difficult it was. Judging from the statements made by Government Ministers recently, it would seem that the Government's position is that they support congestion charging in principle, but they recognise that you have to carry public opinion. The question I would pose to central government is what is their strategy for carrying public opinion on this issue.

  182. Do you think that government should give financial incentives to local authorities for tackling this issue about charging, or to penalise those that do not?
  (Professor Begg) There is a question mark over how successful the strategy is going to be which puts local authorities on the front line.


  183. Professor, I am not going to let you get away with that. The Transport Act gave local authorities the right to do this. You are saying that something ought to be done: we have more than once given the Secretary of State the opportunity to say whether he still supports that situation, and you say when we ask you how to get public opinion on board that we ought to ask the Government about it. Fine, but it is no use then saying we should not put the local authorities in the front line.
  (Professor Begg) The point I was making, Madam Chairperson, is that this is such a tough challenge for local authorities, and indeed the Mayor of London, and it is so central to the Government's objective of cutting congestion across—

  184. So the Government should do it.
  (Professor Begg) I think the Government needs to engage the public on this issue. There is a vacuum just now, because we know who is opposed to congestion charging, even though the opponents do not have another answer to congestion. Those people who know that it is right, the onus is on them to start to—

  185. You have a fine and clear mind; you think things through: so what is it you are saying to us? Is it that local authorities are going to get thumped if they do it, and therefore the Government should do it?
  (Professor Begg) In the first instance, I think we should stick with the strategy of allowing local authorities to do it, but they need more support from central government.

  186. Financial?
  (Professor Begg) I think it is both. We need to hear Government ministers articulate the case for congestion charging, but on the point that was made as to whether they need financial support, I would say they do. They need as many incentives as possible because we have to remember that the assumption was that by 2010, twenty towns and cities would have introduced either congestion charging or the workplace parking levy. On current trends, that seems to be very ambitious.

Tom Brake

  187. On that point, as part of a government strategy to help local authorities, should the Government have issued some time ago guidance on congestion charging schemes, and why do you think that this guidance from Government has not been forthcoming? Is it because the Government does not want to be seen to be associated with congestion charges?
  (Professor Begg) The approach the Government has taken on it is to work through the charging partnership. Those local authorities that have been interested and shown a willingness to introduce one form of charging or another, have had a lot of advice and some encouragement in private through this partnership. It would be helpful if guidance was issued more widely on this issue.

  188. Would you expect in that guidance the Government to put figures about the sorts of levels of charges, whether exemptions should apply, and that sort of detail?
  (Professor Begg) There is always a clash here between conflicting objectives. We are trying to make sure that the schemes are uniform, that we are using the same type of technology; and that the exemption levels and the charges are fairly compatible in different parts of the country. That objective clashes with the objective of giving as much local autonomy as possible to the councils. The easiest thing in the world is for someone like me to start to pontificate about the charge that local authorities should set and who should be exempt, but at the end of the day this is a decision that has to be made by the local politicians who are sticking their heads on the line.

  Helen Jackson: That is quite correct, but what evidence do you have that congestion charging could very easily be used as a political football, as we come up to annual local elections? Leave London out of it—I am thinking of all the other urban areas—

  Chairman: Do not spend too long on that, Professor Begg, because I do not know which of your models has got "political opinion" written in.

Helen Jackson

  189. That is what I was asking.
  (Professor Begg) I would just say "yes". That is the danger.

Chris Grayling

  190. Professor Begg, would it be fair to say that congestion charging schemes will not work unless additional capacity is created within the public transport infrastructure to absorb those passengers being moved off the road?
  (Professor Begg) I do not think I would be as categoric as that. It is certainly desirable that you have the public transport capacity. What is interesting is that it is not just the diversion to public transport that takes place. The assumption people make is about a big switch from car use to public transport. One of the big changes that takes place is that people start to change the time at which they travel, or they postpone making a journey; and we start to make more efficient use of the existing road space. Another example is that we would expect car occupancy rates to start to rise as well. It would be desirable to make sure you have that capacity on public transport.

  191. Congestion is no longer limited to a small number of hours a day; it is spread through much of the day in most major urban cities.
  (Professor Begg) But it still tends to be concentrated much more on the peak.

  192. If it is desirable to have an improved transport system, whether or not it is absolute, given the presence of congestion charging as a core part of the 10-year plan, and given that there seems to be significant suggestions in the system that the 10-year plan is slipping away at the moment and projects are not happening at anything like the rate that they was originally anticipated, is it realistic to look at the development of congestion charging schemes within the 10-year plan period in the same way that was previously envisaged?
  (Professor Begg) A number of authorities have taken the view that we have to make sure that public transport improvements are in place first, before introducing congestion charging. That, for example, is the position taken by Bristol City Council. We do not have as much evidence as you seem to have on the 10-year plan slipping, because the Government have not been explicit on when a number of things should happen. What we know is that we have a picture of where we are now; we have a snapshot of where we need to be in 2010; but what we do not have is what the progress should be year by year.

  193. You must realise that the progress is becoming more and more challenged, the more months that go by, and that a lot of serious transport experts—and you must be amongst them—are realising that the 10-year plan is much more difficult to achieve than it ever was before. That must, surely therefore cast a doubt on the viability of congestion charging in major urban centres before 2010, simply because to force people off the roads—yes, some may travel at different times but the public transport alternatives do not look as though they will be there in the same time-frame.
  (Professor Begg) I would echo what you say when it comes to railways. Progress has not been as good as most of us would have hoped in enhancing the railway network. You will find that the big diversion from car use to public transport is not from car to rail, but it is car to bus. It is a real mixed bag, what is happening to buses, but there are some pretty remarkable success stories as well as some disappointing outcomes.

Mr Donohoe

  194. The Committee in its earlier form took evidence and did an inquiry into out-of-town shopping. Do you not honestly believe that congestion charging will just lead to more out-of-town shopping centres?

  (Professor Begg) It depends on where the boundary is. One of the difficulties at present is that if any local authority or the Mayor of London introduces congestion charging, there has to be a cordon or a boundary. That is why we have advised government that in the future they need to look at introducing congestion charging at a national level, and it is something that the Government should lead. It should form part of the reform of how we pay for road use in this country. The answer to that question is that you would have to look at exactly where the boundary is. Some people argue that if you have to pay to go into the city centre, less people will come in to do business and to shop. That may be the case, but we have to remember that one of the factors that has slowed down economic growth in our city centres is traffic congestion. If we do not do something to cut out the traffic congestion, there are going to be fewer people coming in to the city centres to do business.

  195. Do you honestly believe that? If you look at the way the roads are structured in Edinburgh, the capital in Scotland, you have chased everybody out of Princes Street and they are all going to the Gael Shopping Centre. That is a classic example of what I mean by the introduction of an urban area charging scheme, or manipulation by the planning department, to virtually drive the motorist out of the city. That will be exactly the same here, will it not? It will happen in the same way.
  (Professor Begg) There is no congestion charging in Edinburgh. The last time I saw any hard research on this, it indicated that one of the key reasons why people did not want to bring their cars into Edinburgh city centre was because congestion was too great.

Clive Efford

  196. In some respects, is not congestion charging missing the target? You said that you would have to put a corridor around certain parts of cities. Are we trying to cut the unnecessary use of vehicles in general, not just in city centres?
  (Professor Begg) I think we are trying to reduce the negative impact that rising car use has. I suppose the major negative impact is congestion. Our advice to Government in our Paying for Road Use report was that you introduced congestion charging not just in city centres but anywhere in Britain where congestion becomes acute, and that could be in an out-of-town shopping centre, where congestion has grown rapidly. In order to win public support for this, we felt that there was a case for reducing other taxes on road use to make this more publicly acceptable and fairer.

  197. Is not the war we are waging one against the comparative costs of public transport against car use? Comparative costs as a proportion of income over the last generation has gone down consistently, whilst public transport has gone up. Are we not just trying to make people who use their cars count the cost of using it, as they use it?
  (Professor Begg) Yes, and that would be desirable. If we could start to shift the charge on motorists away from fixed costs, such as vehicle excise duty, towards movement costs, that would mean that public transport was on a more level playing-field with car use. You have raised a point that has given us a lot of concern, and that is this growing discrepancy between the price of using a car and the price of using public transport. Only in the last year, the cost of using a car has fallen by 2.5 per cent, as the cost of using public transport on average has gone up by 1.5 per cent; so the price signals are not going in the right direction.

Mr Donohoe

  198. Surely, that is not right, if you take the overall cost? To travel into London and park the car every day now costs you £30. You cannot possibly in these circumstances say that the price of running a car in the home counties is going down by 2.5 per cent.
  (Professor Begg) This was an average figure for the UK.

Mr Syms

  199. On this topic, any kind of charge is fairly aggressive. Although we know in central London there is very high usage of public transport, in many provincial cities the urban poor have to use a car. Do you believe the Government will only be successful in reducing congestion if they drive the urban poor out of our provincial cities?
  (Professor Begg) I would challenge the statement that congestion charging is regressive. It depends a great deal on what you do with the income. If you ring-fence the income and put it into public transport, as has happened in London, I think it is probably one of the most progressive, equitable and pro-poor policies that you could introduce. There are four times as many low-income bus users in Britain as there are low-income motorists. I am always interested because we take a very different view on transport than we do on health and education. If you were to increase a charge on private schools and private hospitals and put the money into the state alternative, no-one would argue that it was regressive.

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