Labour refuse to rule out introducing a congestion charge in Cardiff
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
Labour has refused to rule out introducing a congestion charge in Cardiff ahead of the upcoming local elections.
Tory councillors called on Cardiff council to scrap any plans to bring in a charge for drivers to use roads in the city, in a late night debate on Thursday, March 17.
The charge would likely cost £2 or £3 a day and apply to drivers who live outside Cardiff, with the city’s residents exempt.
Labour councillors denied they had any proposal for a congestion charge, but said urgent action was needed to cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change and air pollution.
Tory Councillor Joel Williams, who put forward a motion to the full council, said: “Cardiff residents are entitled to know where political parties stand on the issue of a congestion charge in Cardiff. A congestion charge would punish hard-working residents and would be catastrophic for our businesses.
“Our city is beginning to recover from the pandemic, but take a walk into the city centre and you’ll see the growing number of boarded up shops. Our businesses need a fighting chance, and a congestion charge will kill off any recovery they are hoping for.
“Cardiff needs a business-friendly council, not one that wants to charge people for supporting businesses in the city centre, when the public transport alternatives to driving are often so lacking. Public transport in this city is poor, and this must be addressed before any road charging is discussed, let alone proposed.”
Labour Cllr Caro Wild, cabinet member for transport, said: “The cabinet has no proposals for a congestion charge. But in 2020 the council’s transport white paper committed to look at a number of avenues to fund £1–2 billion of transport improvements, a real vision for the city—a city-wide metro, £1 bus fares, all sorts of stuff. But this of course would have to be funded.
“When it comes to funding, we’re prepared to look at all options. If a charging scheme was deemed suitable, we would prefer a smaller fee and an exemption for Cardiff residents. The council hasn’t seen evidence of positive or negative economic impact following any introduction of a congestion charge.
“This council has declared a climate emergency. Public Health Wales also considers poor air quality to be a public health crisis, that affects the health of every citizen, and especially children and older people. And we are in a climate crisis. Scientists have made it clear that we have nine years to change direction, or the planet will irreversibly become uninhabitable.”
The economic logic behind road user charging, according to transport expert Professor Kenneth Button, is that “motorists should pay for the additional congestion they create when entering a congested road”, and a fee would make drivers more aware of how they add to congestion, as well as harmful air pollution and climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions.
Transport is the only sector in Cardiff to have barely seen carbon emissions reduced in the past few years, with a reduction of just eight per cent since 2005. Meanwhile emissions from domestic, public sector, commercial and industry energy use have all reduced much more. It’s expected a charge could reduce the number of drivers in the city, and related emissions.
Over the next few decades, fuel duty revenue is expected to drastically drop off across the UK as drivers switch from diesel cars to electric. Vehicle excise duty also doesn’t apply to electric vehicles. Advisers to the Welsh Government and Westminster have previously suggested road user charging could replace this lost revenue, currently at £35 billion a year.
Only people living outside of Cardiff would have to pay to use the roads, with those living within the city’s limits exempt, the council previously said. This is partly for practical reasons, as fewer cameras would be needed to only check drivers entering Cardiff rather than all over the city. Emergency services, buses and blue badge holders would also likely be exempt.
Tory councillors claimed any new charge would inevitably end up including drivers living in Cardiff, and while initially small could quickly be made more expensive after its introduction.
Cllr Joel Williams said: “Not one Labour councillor has ruled out bringing in a congestion charge in Cardiff. We’re saying, unequivocally, that we wouldn’t bring in a congestion charge. Labour councillors are also trying to shelter under the argument that ‘if we do bring it in, Cardiff residents won’t pay’.
“But we know the Welsh Government won’t allow that to happen because the stallions riding over the Rhondda valleys will say ‘absolutely not, we’re not paying to fund Cardiff’s public transport improvements’. At that time you’ll say let’s bring it in for everyone. This will cost working people in Cardiff hundreds if not thousands of pounds a year. I don’t agree with that.”
But his motion to rule out any new congestion charge was criticised by Labour and Liberal Democrats as electioneering and scaremongering.
Liberal Democrat Cllr Emma Sandrey slammed the motion as “desperate, embarrassing and stupid”. She said: “To distract from Partygate, which is coming up on doorsteps, the Tories are going to great lengths to be seen as relevant in the upcoming local elections.”
Council leader Huw Thomas said: “No Labour administration would do anything that damages the economy of Cardiff or that wasn’t in the best interests of our residents. This motion is a tawdry attempt to shore up the electoral prospects of a handful of Tory councillors.
“Next month residents will see their national insurance contributions surge by hundreds of pounds, directly thanks to the policies of the Conservatives in government. Next month residents will also see their energy bills skyrocket by 54 per cent thanks to the inaction of the Conservatives in government.
“From a botched Brexit to lockdown parties, from billions wasted on sub-standard PPE to giving peerages to Russian oligarchs, the Tories have shown themselves to be utterly unfit to govern. No amount of motions will disguise the real anger felt by Cardiff residents towards the Tory government and their so-called ambassadors in this city.”
If a charge were introduced, a cordon would be set up around the city’s limits, with cameras checking number plates for vehicles registered outside Cardiff. The charge could cost about £2 or £3 and might only apply on weekdays. The funds raised, estimated up to £20 million a year, could be used to upgrade regional buses and train services into Cardiff.
The charge would be much lower than London’s congestion charge, £15 a day, but the council expects it would still be enough to change behaviour and nudge people towards using public transport—similar to the introduction of charges for single-use plastic bags.
But drivers are already burdened with heavy costs such as paying to park in the city centre, increasing petrol and diesel costs, vehicle excise duty and fuel duty, and any new charge to drive could prove unpopular with some motorists.
Transport consultants are currently working with the council to explore different charging options, but no formal proposal is on the table yet. According to the council’s transport white paper, published just over two years ago, a congestion charge could be introduced in 2024.
Before then major upgrades to public transport are due to be completed, including the opening of Cardiff’s bus station, new park and ride services, new train stations, and new regional express bus routes, as well as new cycle lanes.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.