Belgravia’s businesses facing up to the Congestion Charge expansion
The existing Congestion Charge scheme covers eight square miles in an area best known for its commercial districts out of a total of 600 sq miles in Greater London. Its impact upon traffic numbers has been well reported as also has the negative impact on retail and other businesses within the zone.
With the proposed extension of the Congestion Charge zone westwards the acute financial stress felt already by central London retailers will be increased from 2006 potentially leading to many closures of small retail businesses and restaurants in Belgravia and the rest of our neighbourhood.
Figures from Transport for London show that there has been a relatively modest reduction in the number of drivers who drive into work each day but a very significant fall in tourists, local visitors and most importantly shoppers to local retail businesses.
For some of our best loved Belgravia shops the decision to continue to invest or expand within central London now depends on what shopping environment they can expect. For the small independent or family-run business within the congestion charge zone the continued revenue loss is likely to lead to retirement, relocation or forced sales.
Attending meetings with the London Chamber of Commerce and representatives of West End shopping associations, already inside the zone, has shown me that the impact on retailers from major stores such as John Lewis to small specialist shops and long-established restaurants has been much higher than expected. In various surveys conducted amongst businesses falling within the expanded congestion charge zone likely to come into force in 2006, more than 85% were against such a move.
London is a premier shopping city with famous store names and shopping areas such as Knightsbridge known throughout the world. The sharp fall in business turnover for many retailers within the current congestion charging zone means that some shops are considering going elsewhere to trade. More importantly for them the question now is can they be sure that they can move to an area away from any further congestion charge expansion.
I believe it will prove almost impossible to enlarge the scheme beyond the current boundaries, except in the most marginal way. This is because, as the scheme is expanded, significantly larger numbers of households would be included within the zone that, if able to take advantage of the resident discount, would undermine the financial viability of the scheme. Having said that, it is clear that the congestion tax is not raising anything like the amount of money anticipated to the detriment of improvements in public transport and presumably it will not be long before the fees will have to be raised.
The long held tradition of people coming into central London for shopping can only survive if the experience remains relatively convenient, special and, in some respects, unique. Major department stores are not enough. Belgravia needs exclusivity and village charm – without it our community will slowly but surely die out. It is already clear that tourists resent only seeing the same coffee shops and restaurant chains that they have at home. If this trend is not reversed, I fear that it will not be long before congestion may well be the least of central London’s worries.