The debate over transport is hotting up. The Government's White Paper on the subject is scheduled for next May - although its consultation process ended last month. Everyone is agreed on the need to reduce car dependency, and one radical solution is to charge vehicles a fee for travelling into city centres. Leicester City Council set up an experiment two months ago to charge volunteer drivers on oneroute into the centre. If successful, other city councils may well follow suit.
But the idea is one to which businesses are reacting with alarm. 'We are totally opposed to making drivers pay,' says Manchester Chamber of Commerce's policy manager, Ian Kerr. A levy on lorries is one concern, but so is the impact on the company car. Adds Kerr: 'If you make things difficult for company car users, you run the risk of deterring investors as well as driving out existing companies.' The fear that road pricing could drive custom out of certain city centres is also voiced by Peter Stillwell, chief executive at Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce: 'Road pricing is a major debate which the business community views with great apprehension.
We don't totally reject it if it's done across the board. Otherwise, the city's economic strength and competitive edge could be lost to, say, Glasgow, if that city decides not to do it.'
It is important to distinguish between essential and non-essential car use, including company cars used for work and those seen as a perk, suggests Birmingham's policy director Tony Bradley. Company cars support the important regional automotive industry, he adds. The problem is that everybody sees their own journey as essential. Keith Horton, Leicester Chamber of Commerce and Industry's chief executive, is typical: 'I have to have my car. I need the kind of quick access which schemes such as Park and Ride won't ever give me.'
London alone defends the idea. Last June its chamber of commerce conducted research which showed 84% of business leaders supported the principle of road pricing for vehicles coming into the city, provided that the proceeds are used to improve public services. People are talking about pricing almost as if it's inevitable, says London Chamber of Commerce and Industry's policy director Andrew Hawkins, and a mayor, if elected next year, would have powers to carry it out. 'We have seen a complete about-turn over the last two years from the car as a symbol of freedom to the car as a problem,' says Hawkin.
He distinguishes between 'smart' and 'dumb' pricing systems, where the former is applied only at peak times, the latter all the time. But there could be a fatal catch-22, he adds. If pricing does work as a deterrent, no money would be raised to improve public transport. And his conclusion - the need to offer the carrot of improved public transport before the stick of pricing - is a point on which all business communities agree.