Following the end of public consultation on London's
congestion-charging plan last week, mayor Ken Livingstone is deciding
whether to push ahead with the scheme. The issue has seen frantic
lobbying on all sides, says Ian Hall
Since the plan to charge people to drive into London's centre was
revealed 18 months ago, stakeholders have been lobbying policy-makers,
briefing the media and undertaking complex public information
At the IPR's Greater London Group gathering this month, Livingstone
compared the PR challenge of introducing congestion-charging to the
ill-fated community charge: 'The only other politician to create a brand
new tax was Mrs Thatcher with the poll-tax, which is not a good
precedent ... We will need a massive information campaign to explain why
we need it.'
Some comms professionals claim an information push is sorely needed and
say that the Mayor's office, and executive body Transport for London
(TfL), have been slow - or reluctant - to spell out the benefits of
Under the proposals, drivers will pay a £5 daily charge to enter
the central zone between 7am and 6:30pm, or face a fine of up to £80. The scheme, which could be introduced by February 2003, aims to cut
traffic by 15 per cent and raise £130m per year.
The London Boroughs of Westminster, Wandsworth and Kensington & Chelsea
- all Tory-run - have lobbied for a public inquiry.
Alex Aiken, director of comms at Westminster, a borough more affected
than most by the plan, said: 'We've found it difficult to get TfL to
discuss details. They should have been more up-front about it during the
consultation - there's almost been a smokescreen.'
Wandsworth head of public affairs Steve Mayner agrees: 'One of our main
tasks has been informing. It appears that they've been trying to sell
the scheme on the basis of Ken's personality, at least initially. The
main problem is that Livingstone has not built a consensus around the
Livingstone aides reject this. A year ago, TfL handed Fishburn Hedges a
brief worth around £1m to handle the scheme's PR. Luke Blair, one
of two full-time FH secondees to TfL, says FH has run both a 'highly
reactive press office' and drawn up 'proactive media strategies'. The
Mayor's office is similarly insistent that it has publicly engaged on
'In a scheme as complex as this, it's difficult to make all the details
known. We have made as much as we can publicly available as soon as we
have the information. Changes have been made to the plans - on
exemptions and so on - from people lobbying us and us having a
willingness to listen.
We have had constructive dialogue with most boroughs,' Blair
But the political opposition has added its voice to the growing tide of
complaint. GLA Conservative transport spokesman Angie Bray says: 'When
Ken hired PR consultants he was acknowledging that he needs professional
help selling an increasingly badly-received message. The case has not
been made at all.'
Blair says an upcoming information campaign costing around £13m -
to be spent on advertising, direct marketing and monitoring, plus
'high-level PR' - will fill any perceived information gap.
'If the scheme is approved, in terms of PR there will be a subtle shift
from building a climate of acceptance to building a climate of
understanding,' he adds.
It is broadly agreed that public awareness of some of the scheme's
details is low and mixed messages have been reaching the media. But with
frustration high at public transport, opinion on congestion charging is,
according to surveys, quite malleable.
Business-funded body London First backs the scheme. Its senior
communications manager for public affairs and media Clare Convey says:
'The main message we have been trying to get across is that people
should give it a chance.'
It is clear that problems would accompany the introduction of congestion
charging - for example, technical hitches, and the creation of
'rat-runs' - and these will create major PR problems for the Mayor.
RAC Foundation executive director Edmund King says: 'This is an
opportunity for London to be a showcase. But even if ten per cent of the
(toll) terminals don't work it will be a PR disaster.'
Other areas - for example, Bristol and Leeds, as well as continental
cities - will be watching closely to see how the debate pans out. With
reputations of key players in London governance closely entwined with
the scheme - mayoral elections are due in two years - things are set to