Cllr Burns, the driving force behind Edinburgh City Councils recently rejected congestion charging proposals,reflects on the result and looks for a way forward.
Edinburgh voters clearly rejected our proposals for a congestion charging scheme and I, as a democrat, accept that decision without hesitation. The outcome of the recent referendum means that Edinburgh residents have voted in favour of the ‘base strategy’, as set out in the Council’s Local Transport Strategy. In essence this means that congestion charging, as part of Edinburgh’s transport plans, has been rejected and will not now be taken forward.
Without a shadow of doubt, congestion charging as an issue has generated considerable debate and discussion – as a matter of fact, well over a decade of debate – throughout Edinburgh. I have taken the clear and consistent view that it was my responsibility to bring this debate and discussion to a conclusion; not to pretend that congestion didn’t exist; not to walk away from an idea because it was controversial. Far too many politicians, elected to supposedly lead, then fail to do so. I hope that even those who voted no can accept that I advocated the congestion charging scheme because I genuinely believed that it was in the best long-term interests of the city.
And the principal reason we decided to go to an actual referendum on our proposals is that we were required by the Scottish Executive to demonstrate ‘clear public support’ before seeking final approval for any implementation of a charging scheme. The most obvious way of demonstrating public support was to hold a public ballot. Some may argue that this was a high-risk strategy but it was the only way that we could proceed with our charging proposals for Edinburgh. In many ways, this did lead the Council into a classic catch-22 situation.
Now, without congestion charging, not only will it be difficult to reduce congestion; it will also be very difficult to realise the scale of public transport improvements that are needed to give a genuine choice for people in and around the city. Congestion charging would have generated an additional £760M that could have legally only been spent on transport investment. This “additional” funding is no longer available to the Council.
Yet, the ‘base strategy’ remains very significant – over £1 billion of transport investment will be delivered and this represents the biggest boost to infrastructure investment since Victorian times. This money has been forthcoming as a direct result of the overall transport strategy that the Council has pursued in the last 4-years – it is sheer fantasy politics to believe this funding would have come to Edinburgh regardless: it would not. One only needs to contrast the current transport infrastructure profile of Aberdeen, Dundee or Glasgow to realise the truth behind this point.
We thus continue to have a very ambitious programme of improvements underway, which will benefit everyone. These include two tram lines; new Park and Ride facilities at Ingliston, Hermiston and Todhills; more Real Time Information on the cities major bus corridors; a huge programme of road improvements for 2005-06; the Central Edinburgh Traffic Management scheme and the improvement of pedestrian facilities on Castle Street. Edinburgh will also benefit from the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link.
And significant achievements have already been secured – highest bus patronage in the UK outside of London, 3 brand new rail stations delivered as part of the Crossrail project; two tram bills approved in principle by the Scottish Parliament; a new 21st century bus station delivered; 20% of residents walking to work; moving towards 5% of residents cycling to work; and 20mph zones being rolled-out across the city, playing their part in 2004 being the second year in succession that Edinburgh and the Lothians have seen not one single road-related child fatality.
But, the problems associated with growing congestion will not go away. And with congestion charging no longer on the political agenda in Edinburgh, the city must face up to the very real prospect of failing to reach congestion-reduction targets, as set by the Scottish Executive. Indeed, none of Scotland’s cities will now stabilise traffic volumes in 2021 at 2001 levels.
Edinburgh though must, and will, continue to develop its transport infrastructure so that the congestion we currently experience does not escalate so badly that it damages our economy. Congestion charging could have given us a ‘leading edge’ in actually reducing the congestion that faces all cities across Britain – but now Edinburgh’s congestion problems are set to become more like the ‘British norm’.
Councillor Andrew Burns
Executive Member for Transport & Public Realm
The City of Edinburgh Council