Views split on Edinburgh toll

Locals are being asked to take sides in the run-up to the vote on a congestion charge for Edinburgh, writes Susanna Gillman.

In the same month that Edinburgh's proposed congestion charging scheme was backed by a public inquiry, latest research suggests that traffic jams can lead to heart attacks. It is a sweet coincidence for the champions of road tolls as a means of reducing traffic congestion in clogged-up city centres.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that people caught in traffic are three times more likely to have a heart attack within the hour than those who are not. Although the prevention of jam-induced coronaries is not the major motive for introducing a toll in Edinburgh, the health benefits certainly add weight to the scheme.

On the whole, the inquiry into the Scottish capital's proposals (Planning, 22 October, p1) has pronounced the two-cordon scheme sound. The core arguments are clear - to control growing congestion and to raise money to improve the public transport system so that travellers have a real alternative to cars.

Almost a million vehicles enter central Edinburgh every week and the region is facing a further transport challenge as it grows over the next decade. Around 50,000 more people are expected to live in Edinburgh and the Lothians by 2015. Traffic is forecast to grow by 50 per cent over the next 30 years and congestion is predicted to nearly double.

As well as tackling congestion and pollution, the scheme is expected to generate £740 million for public transport improvements over 20 years.

The revenue will boost the £100 million in funding earmarked for the city's public transport network by 2006 and another £375 million allocated for a tram system by 2009.

But despite the glowing figures, some believe that congestion charging is not the best solution for the city's transport problems. Edinburgh City Council's Liberal Democrat group, the main opposition to the Labour-controlled authority, is concerned that there is not enough upfront investment for public transport improvements and is campaigning for trams to be introduced before tolls.

Liberal Democrat councillor Fred Mackintosh echoes the inquiry's reservations about the tight timetable for bringing forward public transport alternatives, such as park-and-ride schemes, before tolls are introduced. "We object to the detail of the scheme but not the principle," he explains.

RTPI Scotland convener Alice McGlone welcomes the scheme on the basis that the money will be invested in public transport. This should not just mean a tram link but should cover car sharing, better bus services and employer travel plans, she argues. "I don't want to give unqualified support to a blunt instrument designed simply to levy money," adds McGlone.

The plans have been embraced more enthusiastically by the green lobby.

Friends of the Earth Scotland maintains that the scheme benefits those who do not have access to a car, as well as cutting pollution and protecting public health. "In the run-up to the inquiry the debate was almost completely polarised around motorists, but there are more than just car drivers who live and work in the city," says head of research Dan Barlow.

The scheme has fuelled consternation among businesses and residents.

The proposal to exempt Edinburgh residents who live outside the outer cordon from the charge has caused particular outrage. Neighbouring Midlothian and West Lothian Councils argue that the scheme is unfair and would cause problems for commuters to the capital. The inquiry report suggests that the exemption should be abandoned to ensure fair treatment.

Another major voice of opposition, the business lobby, sees the toll as an extra tax. "Small businesses have a hard enough time already and will have to pass on costs to customers," warns Federation of Small Businesses Edinburgh branch chairman Tim Steward. He claims that evidence from the London scheme suggests that business would incur losses and have to move out of the zone.

Barlow dismisses such claims as scaremongering. "Businesses have far more to gain from a congestion charge scheme. For one, deliveries are quicker," he argues. But Steward counters: "Nobody in London believes that things have got better. London already had a sophisticated public transport system but Edinburgh doesn't."

Steward claims that the charge would make it more difficult to attract people to work in the city and reduce an already small labour pool. "The council has avoided grasping the nettle on transport, like creating an underpass under Princes Street or underground parking. People want to use cars. How do we get councillors to recognise this fact?" he asks.

McGlone accepts that people outside the cordon might change their shopping habits, but rejects the idea that a toll would cause an exodus of big business. But ATIS REAL Weatheralls associate director Euan Pearson contends: "Tolling would just be another financial expense. Businesses will move out of town where rents are cheaper and there is parking."

Yet Pearson admits that the scheme could make the city more attractive to developers building affordable houses without car parking for key workers.

"If there is affordable housing in the city centre, people don't have to commute to work," he points out.

The arguments for and against the scheme will be crucial in the coming months before it is put to a referendum early next year. It will depend on whether citizens can be convinced that money will be used to improve public transport, says McGlone: "People have to believe that money will go into public transport and not just see it as another road tax."

EDINBURGH CONGESTION CHARGE

Proposed scheme

- Charge: £2.

- Inner cordon around historic city centre to operate between 7am and

6.30pm.

- Outer cordon inside ring road to operate between 7am and 10am.

- Exemptions for blue badge and disabled drivers, emergency vehicles,

motorcycles, taxis, buses, city car club and residents.

- Estimated revenue over 20-year period: £1,169 billion.

- Estimated operating costs over 20-year period: £429 million.

- Net revenue for public transport investment: £740 million.

- Revenue to be invested in buses, tram and rail projects, park and

ride, cycle routes and road maintenance.

Inquiry findings

- £2 is an appropriate charge.

- No alternative approach is realistic.

- The scheme will help reduce congestion, noise and emissions.

- Buses and taxis should not be exempted because they contribute to

congestion.

- No exemption of Edinburgh residents outside the outer zone to ensure

fairness.

- Bus and rail improvements for park and ride before charging is

introduced.


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