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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 09:32 GMT
Thorny issue of congestion charges
Drivers will soon have to pay to enter central London
Drivers will have to pay to enter central London
The BBC's Mark Mardell

It's not often government ministers can predict travel chaos and look cheerful.

But the senior minister was smiling as he told me: "There'll be people crashing into the barriers because they don't know they are there, huge jams because drivers are turning round rather than paying and it'll all end up with complete gridlock."

Open in new window : In pictures
The view from the street during the first rush hour

His cheerful little list was a prediction of what will happen on day one of the London Mayor's congestion charges and he could look happy because presumably Londoners will blame Red Ken rather than our off pink and increasingly not very Green Labour Government.

But of course there are no barriers, just cameras placed strategically around the city taking pictures of number plates as vehicles enter the charge zone.

Congestion charging is just a bit too daring for the government, too offensive to millions of voters. But that doesn't mean they think it is actually a bad thing.

The government got transport wrong from the very beginning when Tony Blair told his cabinet that transport was not a priority, that it didn't matter very much.

The suspicion remains that Ken's charges are a stalking horse, something the government can deplore and then introduce in every city in the land

It's something of a mystery how the man who is meant to have some sort of spiritual hotline to the inner concerns of Middle England could have missed the fact that the saloon bar of the Dog and Duck is blue with stories of shivering on stations and overheating in jams.

But he did. And then he compounded the error by putting John Prescott in charge.

Followed by Stephen Byers. The failed chaotic state that was the department of transport then descended into civil war.

It was not a happy time.

Ditching the car keys

John may have two jags while Stephen Byers can't drive but they both started with the simple premise that too many of us drive and more of us should use public transport.

But whenever either of them proposed anything to force people out of their cars Downing Street blocked it.

So they fell back on the rather vain hope that by making the railways better they would tempt people to throw their car keys out of the window.
It is hoped the charge will raise 130 million a year for London public transport network.
It is hoped the charge will raise 130 million a year

It probably wouldn't have worked.

But we'll never know because the railways got considerably worse. They couldn't cope with the real number of passengers travelling so meeting the government's inflated targets was simply daft.

Then along came Alistair Darling. Not for him a grandiose plan to cut pollution levels and make Britain a safer and more pleasant place to live.

His job isn't even to get the country moving again. No, he's there to stop the transport system being Labour's biggest electoral liability.

The strategy is to take lots of pain, bad headlines and ridicule now, and hope that it will pay dividends in a couple of years time.

So cutting back trains sounds silly, but the idea is you get rid of slower obscure routes (I hear the Port Talbot to Poole line may not have long for this world) so mainline trains don't have to queue up behind.

Stalking horse

At first glance Mr Darling has abandoned the Canute-like attempt to stop the steady increase in road traffic, abandoning plans to cut congestion.

But the suspicion remains that Ken's charges are a stalking horse, something the government can deplore and then introduce in every city in the land when Ken has suffered the political pain and teething troubles.

Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Transport
Does Alistair Darling have "the worst job in Government"?
Not quite true. It's worse than that.

The government is introducing road charging for lorries in 2007. When that has been "unrolled" as ministers like to say they plan to introduce it for cars too.

So you won't be charged for going into a big city, but for going anywhere.

That's presuming voters, who think of themselves as passengers and drivers first, don't kick them out of office first.

Ministers routinely moan about their time in transport as the worst job in government.

The Home Office may be stickier, Defence trickier but one minister says it's the only job where you have to apologise to everyone you meet, day in day out, because they are late and it is your fault, not theirs.

It's not set to become any cushier.


BBC London's guide to congestion charging
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 VOTE RESULTS
Do you agree with congestion charges?

Yes
 63.39% 

No
 36.61% 

49889 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

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