The Congestion Charge and Small Business

This year has been decidedly hard work for the small retail and service businesses in Belgravia and many parts of Central London. From talking to the owners of local small shops that I frequent around my home in Elizabeth Street it is clear that there has been much concern about trade in the area during the first months of 2003.

Those small businesses which are on the border of the congestion charge zone have been hit hardest but the whole of central London has lost some of its traditional appeal as a shopping and trading area. The effect will not be beneficial to anybody but it has been difficult to convince the masterminds at Transport for London of this.

According to the West End retail consortium the number of visitors to the central London shopping has been slashed by the anxiety over the congestion charge, allied to the Central line closure and the effect of the Iraq war. To date with the Central Line promising further closures during weekends for engineering works (the lack of organisation on the London Underground beggars belief) and the continued reduction in the numbers of overseas tourists, prospects are not bright for retailers at weekends in central London. All of this gloom comes on top of the general uncertainty in the economy.

In recent days the Federation of Small Businesses has said that the effects of the congestion charge are particularly severe for firms involved with deliveries, domestic appliances and with the elderly and infirm. But we all knew this before the charge was introduced. The next problem is that London faces an extension of the zone should Ken Livingstone be re-elected Mayor next year.

Living in Belgravia just outside the zone has been of value to me in my dealings with professionals such as builders and plumbers. One of the first questions I get asked is whether I’m in the congestion zone because it is so much of a nuisance to get the £5 fee paid. No one expects a builder to arrive at their door having got off the Tube carrying a bagful of tools so I am lucky at present but I fear it will only be a short time before my home is subsumed into the Transport for London’s congestion tax embrace.

My postbag has grown considerably in recent months with heartfelt letters from retail traders concerned at the fall-off in business and the prospects for the future are not good. Before the congestion charge was introduced many elderly constituents within the zone wrote to me worried about the cost to their visitors and so it has proved. Clearly there are still no signs of improvement in London’s transport infrastructure. Central government has now cut London’s transport grant for the next two years by exactly the same level (£100 million) that is expected to be raised by the congestion tax. So I am afraid those Transport for London advertisements which claim that the congestion charge is being spent on extra buses are misleading to put it mildly. There simply will not be any new investment from this source.

In discussions with many people at the Greater London Authority it is clear that the current congestion tax is ready to be expanded as soon as is practicable and the movement outwards will be towards Knightsbridge and Bayswater.

Belgravia’s restaurateurs and retailers beware!