The West Midlands is first choice to test the Government's new satellite-based congestion charging scheme, according to a leading Government transport adviser.

Professor David Begg believes Labour Ministers are keen on a West Midlands pilot for the project because the mixture of Conservative and Labour councils would "diffuse the politics of charging through cross-party support".

The Department for Transport has created the Transport Innovation Fund, which will rise to £2 billion for new public transport schemes by 2012, as a sweetener for the conurbation which is first to pilot the charge.

This, Prof Begg said, would pay for the improvements the "West Midlands has been crying out for".

The Birmingham Post also understands from DfT sources that the West Midlands' nearest rival in the race to land the lucrative pilot, Greater Manchester, is lagging some way behind.

Prof Begg, writing in the first issue of new magazine Transport Times, said the existing London congestion charge is likely to be modified to use the new satellite technology too, but the most important pilot for the DfT would be outside the capital.

"My money is on the West Midlands," he writes.

"Conservative-controlled Birmingham City Council has begun to express keen interest in congestion charging.

"A West Midlands bid would appeal to Labour Ministers as it would help diffuse the politics of charging through cross-party support.

"The West Midlands business community is restless

and is pushing for radical measures."

He adds: "It would be good news for the West Midlands. A combination of higher investment in transport infrastructure and less-peak-hour congestion must be attractive."

However, Prof Begg, who has been chief transport adviser to successive transport secretaries since 1997, said the scheme will only be politically feasible if a "revenue-neutral" scheme is implemented.

"The elected members in Birmingham say that congestion charging is attractive only if it is fiscally neutral.

"This could be administered via a smart card which pays the congestion charge and is at

the same time used to purchase the tax disc and petrol. "A monthly bill would be sent, setting one off against the other."

He said: "One idea that might be looked at is for the cost of driving on busy roads during the peak hours to be higher than payments for driving off-peak.

"This would result in a spreading of the peak and more efficient road use."

Prof Begg, who is also director of the Centre for Transport Policy at Robert Gordon University, said a revenue- neutral scheme might not cause the massive reduction in car usage wanted by environmentalists.

"Frankly, this is where my heart is, but you must be realistic. Without revenue neutrality there is unlikely to be a congestion charging trial outside the capital."

A spokesman for the seven West Midland district authorities said Prof Begg's opinions were "interesting" but ultimately just those of one man. "The metropolitan authorities have started a process of debate, consultation and research to look longer term at all the potential solutions to our traffic problems. These are problems which will dramatically worsen over the next few decades if we do nothing."

A spokesman for the DfT last night said Prof Begg was "jumping the gun".

Bids for £18 million of development money, to enable local authorities to work on their bids for TIF funding, were being accepted until October.

This was with a view to accepting TIF bids - including congestion charge piloting - next year.