Autocar’s discovery that London’s revamped Congestion Charge system will allow automatic payments has to be good news for drivers. Since February 2003, nine million fines have been issued for late and non-payment.
Aside from having to pay road tolls in a country with some of the highest fuel taxes in the world, London motorists faced a C-Charge that made payment complex and easy to forget. And the fines for forgetting were typically over the top.
I have followed London’s Congestion Charge since it was a twinkle in Ken Livingstone’s eye.
In 2002 I was asked by the BBC to make a short film in opposition to the C-Charge. That was easy. The number of vehicles entering the centre of the capital had been falling for years.
Of course, Mayor Livingstone got around this inconvenient fact by digging up the roads for 18 months and causing the worst jams in living memory. Then in February 2003, the holes were filled and the C-Charge was switched on.
“Look,” said the Mayor, “the streets are flowing freely again.” With a year, though, a programme of road space removal began in the city centre, bringing traffic speeds back down to the level of 2002.
Just before the charge began, I met Derek Turner, the engineer in charge of the C-Charge. I suggested that the capital would be jammed by traffic skirting around the zone.
“That won’t happen,” he said. “”But the technology won’t work properly. I’ve told them, but they won’t listen.”
He was right. The C-Charge technology proved to be extremely ropey - and Turner resigned just weeks after the C-Charge began operating.
As he predicted, the number plate cameras and computer software were not able to send out fines automatically. This resulted in Capita – the contractor who ran the system – having to hire teams of people to manually check photographs of non-paying vehicles.
Transport for London also had to rejig the contract and pay Capita at least another £35m to continue to run the scheme.
As a result, the administration costs of the C-Charge soared. A few years ago I wrote a letter to the Financial Times, pointing out that for every £5 C-Charge fee paid, £4.75 was swallowed in admin costs.
The FT rang back and said they’d like to publish the letter, but “wanted to see my working”. Even though I failed my maths O-level, it wasn’t hard to decipher the accounts. No surprise, then, that the C-Charge fee went up to £8 per day.
Today, the C-Charge banks around £250m per year, but when all the costs are taken into account, just £90m is raised for public transport. Of that, around £55m is accounted for by fines for late payment. Indeed, after two weeks the fine is a massive £180.
IBM designed the Stockholm C-charge, which is much superior to the crude London system. We can only hope that in the future, London’s road tolls will become even more fair and balanced.
For starters, Mayor Johnson, how about restricting the charge to just peak hours?