I don’t know whether a definitive bean-counter’s verdict has yet been ventured on the costs and benefits of London’s Congestion Charge, but I’m in favour of it anyway, partly because that nice Paul Krugman was kind enough to write a very clear description of the economic case for road-pricing which I found pretty convincing, but mostly because as a resident on the edge of Zone 1, I can now walk to work without choking on the traffic fumes. Hoorah.
Now, when a scheme like this comes in I suppose you’d bank on there being people who will try to weasel their way out of paying when they want to drive into the city, but you’d not perhaps expect those heading up the weasel party to be those blessed and mighty fellows, the diplomats working at the US Embassy:
On July 1, the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square — in London’s congestion-charge zone — stopped paying the 8 pounds (about $14) daily charge that Mayor Ken Livingstone has imposed on motorists who drive into the city center. Diplomats are exempt from taxes by international law, the embassy says.
Livingstone doesn’t see it that way. The combative mayor already faces battles with businesses over the commercial impact of the congestion charge and with residents of west London over plans to extend the zone in 2007. Even so, he has opened a new front with the American diplomatic mission.
“The charge is not a tax,” he says. “When British diplomats are in America and they go on a toll road, they have to pay the tolls.”
Looking back, it seems the Yankee diplomats were whinging about the charge before it was even brought in; consider this piece on the BBC site from 2002, for instance. It’s reasonable to note that at the time, the Foreign Office, while agreeing with Ken about the diplomats’ liability for the charge, noted that “…the scheme will have a financial impact on diplomatic missions in London, especially those from the many developing countries already facing real difficulties in meeting the cost of maintaining a diplomatic presence in the capital.” That’s a fair point, but I just can’t see that the need for exemptions of that kind should be used to sneak in a blanket freebie all round.
Besides, I agree with the spokesman for Transport for London, who pointed out:
… that the charge is not a tax because it’s optional. “If you don’t drive into the zone, you don’t have to pay. The whole point of the congestion charge is to encourage people to use public transport.”
Just so. And not that I’m going to pretend to be an international lawyer, but the Vienna Convention of 1961 seems to allow for ‘charges levied for specific services rendered’ and ‘indirect taxes of a kind which are normally incorporated in the price of goods or services’ – surely enough wiggle room in there for a few quid every day to cut down the traffic.
Sorry, I’ve no sympathy on this score, and can only say clamp ‘em.