The possibility of imposing a congestion charge on Birmingham and the wider West Midlands has been debated in the city.
Organised by The Birmingham Post, speakers at the ICC event, included political and business leaders, environmentalists and a self-styled motorists’ champion.
Titled Gridlock or Growth?,the debate sought to discover the mood of the region regarding the introduction of a form of the charge pioneered in London and recently expanded in the capital. To coincide with the debate, it was revealed that if a similar scheme was introduced in the West Midlands the favoured option would likely be a “pay as you go” charge.
It is a divisive issue and it is an emotive one too simply because the cult of the car has so many in the UK firmly in its grip. Having worked in Birmingham for several years I know of many people who could take the train into the city centre, for example, and yet who would much prefer to sit on a gridlocked route into the city for several hours than expose themselves to public transport.
Equally, I know it is sometimes easier for me to get a train to London, Manchester or Cardiff to see clients than to use public transport to get from one side of the West Midlands to another.
Having received an invite to the event, I did expect a fairly car-centric discussion. However, it was refreshing that many of the points raised by the majority of guest speakers and during a wider Q&A session agreed that focusing solely on introducing a congestion charge was unrealistic.
Imposing a charge on motorists is a last resort in so many respects. The focus of investment and awareness campaigns should be on a much broader package of measures aimed at improving the whole transport picture.
You simply cannot take with one hand without giving with the other – if a congestion charge is to be imposed then significant improvements need to be made in train, tram and bus services in Birmingham and across the wider West Midlands before it is introduced. Realistic, effective and efficient alternatives need to be in place long before we head down the route of a congestion charge.
Throw in more flexible working arrangements to allow people to stagger start and finish times or allow them to tele-work more often and the pressure on our road network would be eased considerably.
Too often we seek to react to such issues in bitty, fragmented ways. Although congestion charging grabs the headlines, it is only part of the story.
There were two other noteworthy points. Firstly, the level paranoia seemingly felt by the average motorist is reaching alarming new heights and they are finding ever more elaborate ways of twisting the truth.
Every transport-related initiative either proposed or introduced is increasingly regarded as a direct attack on the motorist and a “stealth tax” of some description. Motorists feel persecuted yet have very little reason to whinge quite so vocally and persistently.
There is a simple question that few motorists appear ready to answer – if a Continental-style efficient, clean, comfortable, joined up, reliable and affordable public transport was introduced in the UK, how many would be prepared to give up their car for their commute to work?
If an Englishman’s (British person’s) home is his castle, then his car is his trusty charger and he will put up one hell of a fight before he relinquishes it to anyone.
Secondly, apart from the presence of John Spellar MP (a former transport minister) as a guest speaker, the absence of other politicians was quite shaming and noted by those who did attend the event.
If our political leaders – both local councillors and the Westminster brigade – want us to take them seriously, then shouldn’t they be prepared to take part in such a considered and informed discussion on one of the major issues affecting not just the West Midlands but the whole of the country?
Changing a firmly entrenched culture will not happen overnight and with one policy.
Equally, it will not work if potentially divisive policies are imposed without consulting those it will affect the most.
If any politicians had attended the event, they would have heard members of the West Midlands business community calling for greater investment in public transport, improved management of the existing road network and agreeing to look at introducing flexible working arrangements.
Surely that would have been a useful exercise for those supposedly representing our views and charged with finding solutions to one of the most pressing issues facing us today?