London is a transport nightmare. Clogged streets, pollution and a
run-down public transport system have turned the metropolis into a
dysfunctional urban sprawl where the speed of travel has barely changed
since Victorian times.
Something has to be done and London mayor Ken Livingstone has the plan
he thinks will succeed. A high-tech cordon of cameras and optical
recognition equipment will be set up around the centre of London, to
capture the number plate of every driver who travels into a zone
bordered by the London inner ring road - marked, roughly, by King's
Cross and Islington in the north, to Vauxhall and the New Kent Road in
the south, and by Park Lane and Mayfair in the west to Commercial Street
in the east. This will be backed up with more cameras scattered
throughout the zone.
Between 7am and 7pm, drivers will have to pay £5 for each day they
want to travel into or through the zone, or face an £80 fine.
Livingstone's plan is to plough that back into public transport. More
than that, he hopes the scheme will reduce traffic congestion by about
10% to 15%.
Exceptions to the rule
There are a range of exceptions to these charges - residents, the
disabled and emergency and essential delivery vehicles. Unfortunately,
that doesn't include the vehicles of contractors serving London's many
conference and exhibition venues, unless they run on "alternate fuel"
sources, nor the cars of visitors attending them - although an exemption
is dangled in front of tourist coaches.
Given the attempts of politicians and the press to whip up controversy,
insiders at most venues seem fairly blase about the proposals. One might
imagine that those inside the zone would be most concerned, but
Westminster Central Hall director and general manager Michael Sharp is
not unduly concerned. "It might put off people going to evening events -
say a family going to a consumer event," he says. "But we don't have
many of those."
Over at the Royal Horticultural Halls, managing director Rene Dee points
out that for many London venues, it is the tube that matters. "Most of
the people who come to events come by public transport and not by car,"
he says. "I don't think it's as big an issue for venues as it might
It's controversial because it's the first time it's been raised, but
we're just going to have to get used to it."
Dee goes on to say that London is chosen to host events for reasons
other than value for money. "It's a centre where people want to do
As long as the reasons for holding the event in London hold, then a
slight price increase shouldn't make a difference."
But if central venues are sanguine, what about those outside the
Wembley Exhibition and Conference Centre communications and marketing
manager Julie Warren believes the charge can only be a good thing in
encouraging organisers to use the venue. "We've got three tube lines,
two rail stations and 6,000 parking spaces on site," she says. Nor
should contractors face a problem. "Most come to us round the North
Circular Road or on the M25, so it's not really an issue."
Outside the zone
Over in Docklands, London Arena director of sales James Rees also feels
insulated from the chill wind of change. "The few contractors who are
based in town will just add the charge to their bills and pass it on to
their customers," he notes. "It's not an outrageously high charge
This may be contested by contractors. Show Presentation Services
managing director Robin Coles believes the plan is simply an attempt to
make money, and will have no impact on congestion. "People who use the
zone commercially are still going to need to use it," he says. "Slapping
a toll on it isn't going to change that. It's just another stealth
Rees is one of the most bullish about London's public transport. He even
has a good word for the troubled Jubilee Line.
"The Jubilee Line has had problems with signalling, but the trains are
all new and comfortable and quite reliable," Rees maintains. "We also
have a very good relationship with DLR. If we have a big event and we
know 10,000 people are going to be coming out at a certain time they
will keep extra trains on standby."
Another major Docklands venue, Excel, simply considers the matter a
non-issue as it is outside the charging zone.
But if none of London's venues think the congestion charging scheme will
affect them, will it work? Opinion is split. Sharp is particularly
"If you don't want any cars in London, then ban them and be done with
it," he says. "All the time there's an option people will end up paying
The scheme has its supporters, though, including Earls Court and Olympia
chief executive Andrew Morris. "As a Londoner born and bred I think it
is incredibly brave," he says. "London congestion is out of control and
something has to be done. I'm going to fall victim to it occasionally,
but I think it is a good move." However, he remains concerned about the
effects on the creaking public transport system. "If the congestion
charge did work and 10% of traffic was reduced, the public transport
system wouldn't cope," he warns.
London seems to be a victim of its own success. After all, exhibitors
and venue owners would vote with their feet if the situation was truly
"It's a bit like people who go into our cafeteria and complain that
there's a queue," says Sharp. "Traffic congestion is the price you pay
If there's no traffic jam that's the time to start worrying, because
MY JOURNEY TO WORK
James Rees, director of sales, London Arena
I live about a mile from the Arena as the crow flies. I generally cycle
into work unless it is chucking it down with rain, then I take the
Driving takes longer than cycling - about ten minutes compared with
seven or eight. I could walk - it takes about 15 minutes, but I'm bored
with it. And there's no point in spending money on the DLR.
Andrew Morris, chief executive, Earls Court and Olympia I travel from my
home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, north London to Earl's Court in west
London on my Vespa scooter - typically the journey takes about 30
minutes. My travel to work is fairly stress-free: I don't have any
problems with traffic jams because I can bypass them all.
Michael Sharp, director and general manager, Westminster Central
I travel from Tadworth near Epsom, Surrey on British Rail to East
Croyden, then change to Victoria, where I often have to stand all the
way. I complete the journey by tube. Today it was so crowded the train
couldn't take an additional person and had to leave people behind at
every station from Victoria to St James Park. The journey took an hour
and 20 minutes.
Julie Warren, communications and marketing manager, Wembley
I drive in from Elstree. I leave home at about 7.20am and I'm at my desk
by about 7.50am. The traffic depends on whether the children are on
holiday or not, but normally it keeps moving. It may not go as a fast as
I like, but then you're not supposed to go above 30mph anyway.