Road user charges: the Cardiff proposal and schemes elsewhere

Published 11/02/2020   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Cardiff Council’s Transport White Paper (published 15 January) outlines its vision for transport in the city to 2030. It proposes introducing a “road user charging scheme”, often referred to as a “congestion charge”, in 2024. This is the first such proposal in Wales, but with precedent elsewhere in the UK and Europe.

The plans have sparked a debate around who should pay the charge and how the revenue from the scheme should be used.

What is the proposal?

The White Paper proposes a daily charge of £2 on vehicles entering the city. In the Council’s preferred option, Cardiff residents would be exempt from the charge and the revenue raised would be spent on public transport. The charge is part of the Council’s broader transport strategy, which includes development of the South Wales Metro, bus service improvements and promotion of active travel.

Nearly 100,000 people commute to Cardiff for work each day. The White Paper suggests that 80,000 of these journeys are made by car and that a further 100,000 Cardiff residents also commute by car each day. More than half of car journey times during peak periods are spent in delay. The 2017 Cardiff Transport Survey showed that “reduced congestion” was the transport improvement most respondents (64.1 %) wanted to see.

The city also has some of the worst air pollution in the UK, with higher levels of particulate matter than Manchester or Birmingham. In 2019, the Welsh Government launched its ‘Low Carbon Wales’ delivery plan, aiming to encourage a shift away from car dependency.

The Transport Act 2000 sets out the process for introducing road charging schemes. Among the requirements, it states that the Welsh Government must consent to any new road user charging scheme. It also allows the Welsh Ministers to make regulations relating to charges, such as specifying exemptions.

What has been the response?

The Minister for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates AM, wrote to the Leader of Cardiff Council (PDF, 354KB) in response to the White Paper. He welcomed the ambition of the plans as a whole, but indicated that the Welsh Government will commission a study into “demand management approaches”, including their wider regional impact.

Friends of the Earth Cymru and Sustrans support the road user charge proposals. However, Adrian Field, of FOR Cardiff, is reported to have said “we welcome Cllr Wild’s comments that ‘road user charging isn’t the only option available to raise money’ and that they will be looking at other options in a business case.”

The proposals were raised at First Minister’s Questions on 21 and 28 January. The First Minister, Mark Drakeford, reiterated the content of the letter to the Council Leader and added that, “there is a responsibility on the Welsh Government to interrogate these proposals in a regional context.”

Assembly Members representing constituencies in the region have expressed concerns about the charge. Referring to the Council’s plan Alun Davies AM said “many of us will support their ambitions, but not many of us will tolerate a Valleys tax to pay for it”. Vikki Howells AM raised the impact the charge will have on communities where “currently, public transport is not effective in getting people into the city.”

On 22 January the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, Lee Waters AM, explained that there were practical reasons behind the council’s decision to only charge non-residents:

“…because the entry points into the city are fewer, and you can put the infrastructure to capture the number plates, whereas if you were to apply it to all Cardiff residents, you'd need cameras all over the city and that is going to be difficult and expensive to do.”

In the Assembly’s Economy Infrastructure and Skills Committee on 29 January, Hefin David AM questioned the Chief Executive of Transport for Wales (TfW), the body responsible for Wales and Borders Rail services, on whether TfW had been consulted by Cardiff Council on the charging proposal. The Member concluded that it hadn’t, despite the likely impact of the proposal on demand for rail services.

UK charging schemes

Durham introduced the first road user charge to the UK in 2002. Vehicles are charged £2 per day to drive into the small, historic city centre via Saddler Street. The scheme reduced the number of cars using the single road by 85% (PDF, 3.7MB).

A much more extensive charging scheme began in London in February 2003. The daily charge, initially £5 but now £11.50, applies to most vehicles entering the city centre zone between 07:00 and 18:00 on weekdays, although certain vehicles are exempt. Drivers living within the zone receive a 90% discount on the charge, and all revenue raised is spent on public transport schemes.

A year after the scheme’s introduction, congestion in London had reduced by 30% and bus routes in the zone saw 60% less traffic disruption. However, there is evidence that air quality did not change in the congestion zone after the charge was implemented.

Private hire vehicles were initially exempt from the congestion charge. Their numbers rose from 49,854 licensed vehicles in 2012-13 to 87,921 in 2017-18, in part due to the growth of services such as Uber. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, decided to remove the exemption in December 2018, although the London Assembly voted in support of continuing the exemption. The new arrangements came in to force in April 2019.

European charging schemes

In Stockholm, after a 7 month trial period and a city-wide referendum, a permanent congestion charge was introduced in August 2007. A toll, which varies in price throughout the day, applies to vehicles entering or exiting the zone, and there is no exemption for residents. The reduction in traffic averaged 20% (PDF, 1.35MB) during operational hours in the year following the introduction of the charge.

In the 2006 referendum, 53% of voters in the central Stockholm Municipality approved of the charge. Consultative referenda were also held in 14 of the 25 other municipalities in the Stockholm County region, and all rejected the charge.

Milan saw a city centre congestion charge implemented in January 2012. The scheme charges a flat fee of €5 to enter the charging zone and is active between 07:30 and 19:30 on most weekdays. The most polluting vehicles are banned from the area, and the charge is waived for electric and hybrid vehicles. Residents of the charging zone pay a reduced charge of €2 and receive 40 free passes each year. Traffic levels reduced by 31% in the year following the charge, and particulate matter levels reportedly dropped by 18%.

Aborted schemes and future plans

A road user charge covering the Greater Manchester area was proposed in 2008. In December of that year a referendum on the proposals resulted in 78.8% of voters rejecting the scheme, leading to the plans being dropped at that stage.

A similar proposal in Edinburgh was also rejected in a city-wide referendum in February 2005. 74.4% of voters were against introducing the scheme.

However, both Manchester and Edinburgh, together with other UK cities including Leeds and Birmingham, are now considering or implementing new charging schemes. These proposals are for Clean Air Zones (CAZ) or Low Emissions Zones (LEZ) though, rather than road user charges.

The Minister’s letter to the Leader of Cardiff Council (PDF, 354KB) indicates that the Welsh Government’s study will influence “national and regional policy positions” on demand management approaches. It is likely to influence the final form of any charge in Cardiff. That work is due to be completed in the autumn.

Article by Thomas Mitcham, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales

Senedd Research acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Thomas Mitcham by the Natural Environment Research Council which enabled this article to be completed.