Go West and You Hurt Us All, Ken; as the Mayor Consults on Extending the Congestion Charge Zone, a Top Businessman Warns That It Will Damage the Capital's Prosperity

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Byline: SIR STUART HAMPSON

BUSINESSES and the public alike have a final chance to give their views on the London Mayor's plans to extend the congestion charge westwards to Chelsea, Notting Hill, Knightsbridge and Earl's Court, with a last consultation, ending on 15 July. But is the Mayor interested in listening to advice or to the views of Londoners?

As one of the businesses trying to work with the Mayor to build the London economy and to make our city more attractive for events such as the Olympic Games, I despair of his headlong rush in the opposite direction to public opinion.

Mr Livingstone is very keen to claim that only John Lewis ever complains about congestion charging. Not so.

Business organisations such as London First, the CBI, the London Chamber of Commerce and the London Retail Consortium have all gone on record to oppose the extension - as have individual companies such as Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury's and numerous restaurants and small business owners.

And an official pan-London survey attracting 102,000 responses found that 63 per cent of residents and 72 per cent of businesses were opposed to the zone expansion.

Meanwhile, independent economic research has shown that congestion charging is damaging to the retail economy - something which is understandably ringing alarm bells in Knightsbridge and Kensington, where public transport links are nowhere near as convenient as to the West End.

Professor Michael Bell of Imperial College found that the congestion charge was affecting between five and nine per cent of total trade at John Lewis Oxford Street.

This was even after having taken into account the Iraq War, the outbreak of Sars, and the closure of the Central line in 2003. Sales at the store still haven't returned to the levels seen before the introduction of the congestion charge in 2003.

One might imagine that such heavyweight academic research would at least cause the Mayor to hesitate before extending the charging zone westwards - or maybe take the responsible course of commissioning and publishing an independent view. Alas, not.

Instead, the Imperial College research seems to be conveniently airbrushed.

The Mayor claims this is just a John Lewis problem. Yet I've sat in a room alongside other major West End retailers all telling the Mayor that the congestion charge is damaging their businesses.

We're also told there's no evidence that retail in London overall has declined. Well, of course not. The congestion charge doesn't stop people shopping. It just changes the places they shop. So businesses outside the charging zone pick up the trade from those within the zone.

RETAILERS are used to competition and to changing shopping habi t s. That ' s s omething we know we have to cope with.

What is totally new is to have trade patterns diverted by political intervention. Small businesses are most vulnerable to such shifts, and they'll be the early victims of a wider charging zone - wiping out shops and restaurants which are valued by Londoners and which bring character to London's localities. …