ANALYSIS: Congestion tax sparks PR offensive

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

schemes.



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

their plans.



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

scheme.'



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

the issue.



'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

insists.



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

get interesting.



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