Birmingham’s Conservatives have come out against the city council’s proposals for road charging in central Birmingham.
Robert Alden, Leader of the Conservative Group on Birmingham City Council, said the city needed a plan to tackle pollution, but added: “Their blinkered solution of simply taxing people more has left Birmingham residents facing potential bills of over £2800 a year just to travel to work.
“Under Labour clearly working in the City Centre should be for the few not the many. It is clear for everyone to see that Labour’s travel tax will hurt those people who cannot afford to buy a modern car the most.”
Unfortunately for Conservatives hoping to gain any political advantage from the announcement, Tory mayor Andy Street has adopted a very different tone.
It means the city’s Labour-run council will be able to say that their plans to charge car drivers up to £10 are endorsed by the Conservative West Midlands mayor.
Writing in the Times and the Birmingham Post, Mr Street says: “This week Birmingham city council took the bold step of proposing a Clean Air Zone for the city, and residents have the opportunity to make their views known in the next few weeks on how they believe we should tackle the challenge in the city.”
You’ll have noticed that he doesn’t quite come out and say he backs the plan,
But in describing it as a bold step, he makes it pretty clear he doesn’t oppose it.
Andrew Mitchell, Birmingham’s only Conservative MP, isn’t as enthusiastic - but his concern is largely about how it will affect people in his Sutton Coldfield constituency, rather than the principle of the thing.
He told me: “I have always been wary of how any road-pricing policy in Birmingham will be introduced.
“Obviously my principle concern is that it shouldn’t disadvantage people from the Royal Town going in and out of Birmingham.”
If you’ve been following the story, you’ll know that the plan was originally to create a “clean air zone” where there would be charges for some commercial vehicles.
The Conservative government actually ordered Birmingham, along with Leeds, Nottingham, Southampton and Derby, to do this. However, the city council didn’t object.
Ministers said the charge should apply to taxis, buses, coaches, lorries and light goods vehicles such as commercial vans. There was no requirement for it to apply to private cars - but the council was free to extend the scheme if it wanted to.
The aim was to reduce pollution from vehicles, which Public Health England said was resulting in 520 extra deaths a year in Birmingham.
If the charge is to succeed in its goal then it seems likely that private vehicles will have to be included.
In the circumstances, it seems harsh to attack the council for taking the decision to include private vehicles in the scheme.
After all, the Government’s initial announcement (made in December 2015) looks like it was designed to pressure local councils into taking the most difficult decisions while allowing the Government to deny responsibility.
But you can see why the Government did that. Because despite the potential health benefits, road pricing has always been deeply unpopular.
The last Labour government also tried to convince Birmingham and its West Midlands neighbours to introduce road pricing.
It offered them a bribe, by setting up a £2 billion fund for transport improvements which was only available to regions that introduced pricing.
Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country councils came up with a plan for a £5 levy for driving through key areas at peak times, but never implemented it.
They eventually agreed it would be impossible to attract business and political support for the scheme.
And the Labour government gave up on the idea after Greater Manchester residents rejected a road charging scheme in a referendum.
More than a million people voted.
A key difference was that the Labour Government said it wanted to cut congestion, while the present proposals are about cutting pollution.
But it’s unclear whether that will make things any more palatable for the motorists paying the bills.
Why is action needed? The World Health Organization has described air pollution as “a public health emergency”, and it#s believed to lead to 40,000 early deaths each year across the UK.
MPs have urged the Government to tax the car industry, with the money going into a Clean Air Fund to help local councils pay for pollution-cutting schemes.
But it seems motorists are likely to take on the burden instead.