Examination of Witness (Questions 180
WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2002
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 madeand 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 chargingwas 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.
(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.
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
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 itI 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.
189. That is what I was asking.
(Professor Begg) I would just say "yes".
That is the danger.
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 expertsand you must be amongst
themare 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 roadsyes, 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.
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
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
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
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