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Charge of the price brigade Debate over urban congestion charging is intensifying as the government's Integrated Transport White Paper approaches.

Back in August last year Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott promised Britain a new, more holistic approach to transport to relieve the 'unacceptable burden' of traffic growth and congestion.

Nine months later the wait for the Integrated Transport White Paper is almost over, and experts are standing by to see how that promise will be delivered.

Most agree that an element of demand management or 'car rationing' in cities is likely to play a significant part. One of the tools most in vogue for achieving that is urban congestion charging.

But is Britain really ready to embrace such a beast? Has Mondeo man got so used to sitting in traffic that he will delve into his wallet for the right to drive into town?

John Dawson, the AA's policy director, thinks not. In fact he says that despite the hype, in the mind of the average car user the idea of congestion charging is a non-starter.

'Road pricing will only become real when you tell motorists that new lines are going to be drawn on the road, and that once you cross the lines to visit your mother you'll have to pay a new tax,' he says.

He adds that research to be published by the AA next week shows that 59% of its members are opposed to congestion charging, 39% strongly so. It seems that with fuel tax running at 9 pence a mile and road tax of £40 a quarter, motorists already think that a pretty harsh system of road pricing is in place.

Of course, the AA membership is not a representative sample of the British public. But Dawson reckons that non-motorists will not think that much differently. Car owners give their friends and family lifts to such an extent that non-car owners travel more today by car than by public transport, he argues.

However, Mouchel director Bill Wyley says that research with focus groups shows most people can be brought round to accepting the need for congestion charging - albeit only if the case is put forward at length and in a logical way.

Wyley believes that the best way to sell the idea to the public would be to hold local referenda on the subject. This would perform the dual role of establishing legitimacy with the electorate, and helping to explain the issues in the necessary depth.

The key seems to be in persuading the public that congestion charging is not just another way of filling the Treasury's coffers. People need to see that by paying extra to use their cars in cities and towns they are getting a tangible benefit or service.

The trouble is that many commentators fear this will not be the case in the government's White Paper. Mayor of London candidate and former transport minister Steve Norris says that the Treasury is still to be moved from its present position of agreeing only to partial hypothecation of charges for public transport improvements.

If this is true, Norris reckons the government will be on a 'hiding to nothing'. He adds: 'How could I sell congestion charging to Londoners unless I could say that 100% of the money is going into London's transport system?'

Norris has a point. If the government only pays lip service to hypothecation and there is no visible improvement in public transport, it will have difficulty convincing motorists and their passengers of its merits. Prescott will need to stand firm against the Treasury as the final drafts of his White Paper are prepared.

Matthew Jones

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