Monday, 11 January 2010

The Congestion Charge Racket

To start, hands up, my wife and I are not great at remembering to pay, which is one of my beefs about the Congestion Charge for London.

But it's way more than that - it's getting like a racket - a licence to print money and the abuse of people's rights is getting silly.

First up - it's an unfair system. My wife only ever goes into the zone for minutes on any day she goes to London and always with another passenger in the car. Yet she is charged the full £8 just the same as a driver-only vehicle who may drive around for the full congestion charge period for the same charge - polluting and contributing to jams the whole day. That's just plain stupid and we should all make a stand to Boris Johnson on this - there is nothing 'green' about the system and it's wholly unfair in terms of usage.

It's not as if the technology does not exist to collect charges at source and dramatically reduce the amount of Penalty Charge Notices (PCN) which are sent out. My wife has an account with a debit mandate attached to it and if she remembers to text in then it debits her account. But we have two cars and so she repeatedly texts for the wrong car which has happened again. She has paid £8 but for the wrong vehicle. Transport for London (TfL) happily takes the wrongly paid £8 and will not refund the money in any circumstance - it's the only authority or company I know which has the right totally abuse the consumer rights law yet it is operated by a private company. It is an absolute licence to print money.

The technology for number plate recognition has been there since the day it was launched and the debit mandates are there for individual accounts - yet the payment system is 'rigged' to make sure you have to trigger something to pay even though TfL can actually do it for you. It's absolutely ludicrous that it should not be done this way.

Here's the new thing. Congestion Charge is neither a traffic offence or is it a consumer purchase so it operates in a middle ground but is protected by the laws of traffic transgression. Yet if you speed, the fine notification has to be sent out within 14 days of the offence occurring - any time after actually transgresses your right to defend yourself and so as 'Mr. Loophole', the famous lawyer who gets rich people off, exploits you do not have to pay and you cannot be convicted. Congestion Charge does not have the same rule, they can send out a PCN at ANY time after the offence has occurred - but technically it's not an offence and so despite the fact you have a right to defend yourself as each week passes it becomes progressively more difficult to get facts. TfL has now sent out the last two PCNs my wife has received, despite her paying £8 in both instances, fully seven weeks after the alleged offences took place. As the first was when she used my car, I called to complain and I was threatened that if I did not pay then the charge would be doubled and I would be prosecuted for non-payment.

The best part is that they are not even Londoners on the end of the line - they are Capita people based in Coventry - fat lot they know or care about London.

So, Boris Johnson, if you bother to listen to your public, listen to this. The Congestion Charge system needs to be properly positioned - and do what it says. If cars only enter the zone for minutes in a day then surely they should pay less for the little they pollute and congest within the charging hours. Surely, if not only as a matter of courtesy, PCNs should be sent out promptly and within a few days, maximum 14 days, of a penalty being incurred so that people can exercise their rights to defend themselves properly. People should have individual accounts and pay for any car on the same mandate just list the cars they may use. It is a simple process which is called customer service. And put the call centre in London - manned by courteous Londoners rather than people who have no knowledge of the City or zero care about Londoners.

Ken Livinsgtone famously had a referendum to see if West Londoners wanted the charging zone extended and in democratic process at its best he ignored the huge majority of 'No's' and went ahead anyway. It makes you think more was at stake than just trying to de-congest or de-pollute London.

So, define whether this is a service we buy or whether it is a transgression system. Like clamping and parking, the Congestion Charge is degenerating into a way for private companies to print money by effectively running it as a racket.

And finally, put the money made back into London rather than giving handsome profits to the private companies who run this - why should they profit so much from it?

The whole system was set up wrong in the first place and makes you wonder how many people associated with TfL had shares in Capita? I wonder if anyone checked as they are the only people benefiting from a service gone wrong.

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