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10 February 2003

A fiver to drive? It’s the Blitz again

False number plates, home-made bombs: opponents of London's congestion charge have lots of ideas - e

By Decca Aitkenhead is a bright-red website, illustrated by a cartoon figure called “Angry Man”. It advertises car stickers and sweatshirts bearing anti-congestion-charge slogans, but the real heart of the site is its forum, where visitors express lively views on Ken Livingstone and his congestion charge. New plots to sabotage the mayor’s scheme appear by the hour.

A popular idea is jamming the payment phone lines by leaving the phone off the hook. “I’m just a hairy-arsed builder,” writes another visitor, “but couldn’t someone organise a blockade of arterial roads with horses and carriages?” The suggestion is well received, prompting someone else to ask if there isn’t an arcane by-law allowing lords to drive their flocks of sheep over London’s bridges. An appeal to the Countryside Alliance is proposed, to assist with the necessary livestock.

One contributor is convinced he has the perfect – and legal – solution. Motorists should relocate their number plates on the extreme left or right of their bumpers, and fix a plainly bogus replacement in the conventional spot where the cameras are trained (FU2 KEN is suggested). “I have worked out how to scam just about every machine that has ever been made,” he writes (adding: “If you are old enough to remember the first Atari home games machine, I was the person who discovered how to get double bullets on Space Invaders”).

The idea of charging motorists money to drive along the streets of London is not new. Authorised by parliament in the Nineties, promised in Livingstone’s 2000 manifesto, the consultation process began the following year. Last February full details of the scheme were announced. This month, the capital’s congestion charge of £5 a weekday to drive into central London will be here.

But right at the 11th hour, startled drivers are campaigning furiously through the internet, the streets and the courts to get the charge abolished, or at least amended. It is not a unified campaign, but rather a flurry of separate protests. The campaigners are a disparate lobby. What they share is a powerful sense of indignation, and the conviction that they are making a stand for what they call “democracy”.

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That is arguably all that unites them. Approaches vary widely, ranging from non-payment to street blockades, to complicated recipes for home explosives with which to blow up the cameras. From conversations with the assorted protesters, it appears that second only to their suspicion of Livingstone comes their deep suspicion of one another. “There are,” warns one, echoing several others off the record, “some bloody nutters out there.”

The cast is led by the actress Samantha Bond. Concerned for the safety of theatre workers travelling home late at night, she approached a solicitors’ firm called Class Law late last year. Smithfield market traders joined the action, and a case is currently being prepared to take to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the mayor failed to take into consideration the charge’s impact on the low-paid.

According to Class Law’s figures, the £5 charge will mean a 16 per cent tax rise for any motorist earning £30,000 a year – or a 7 per cent drop in income. But making a legal case for exemptions and reductions will cost £500,000 – funds yet to be forthcoming. Besides which, as Class Law admits, “We have to give the court a jolly good reason why this is happening so late in the day.” Whether the case goes ahead will be decided in the next two weeks.

This is the most sober end of the campaign, where the principle, at least, of a charge is accepted. Next comes the Association of British Drivers, a pressure group whose spokesman makes an argument for doing away with it altogether. Pointing out that the volume of traffic in central London has actually fallen over the past decade, Tony Vickers contends that the real problem is “the artificial congestion, caused by bus and cycle lanes and traffic light rephasing. I know it sounds regressive, but I would reverse 90 per cent of the traffic-calming and sclerotic measures introduced in the past ten years. Keep the traffic moving. Just keep the traffic moving.”

Isn’t it worth even trying an experiment? If Vickers is proved right, and the charge fails to reduce traffic, “because a surplus of ‘optional’ drivers doesn’t exist to be deterred”, the mayor promises to drop it. “But once the Greater London Authority relies on the income, how will they be able to get rid of it? It’s going to become a mobility tax, and that’s all. It’s hard enough to introduce these things – but it’s much harder to get rid of them.”

Vickers makes a good case, but the Association of British Drivers keeps a low profile. Far noisier is the Sod-U-Ken website, set up by a pair of working mothers last October, originally as a protest against roadworks. “I thought, this will be funny,” explains Catherine Crawley, 35, a PR from south London. “But it’s gone bonkers.”

Sounding slightly stunned, she describes the response to Sod-U-Ken. To date more than 18,000 people have visited the site, and its petition carries more than 3,000 signatures.

“It’s quite bizarre. The whole thing has taken on a life of its own, it’s not really my idea any more. I’ve made a world that other people live in; some of them are in there for six or seven hours a day.”

Sod-U-Ken is not the only anti-charge site – nor even anything like the most obsessive. That distinction must go to, which carries the slogan “Kill Kenny’s new poll tax” and is the work of a railway worker from Croydon called Jim.

Jim’s obsession with the congestion charge began in earnest last summer, when he noticed the cameras being installed. “I thought, bloody hell. These big, black, evil, menacing things. They look really sinister, like something out of Big Brother. Like a police state, basically.”

Since then, Jim has been on the phone to Transport for London, Liberty, the British Motorcycle Federation, various motoring correspondents, Private Eye, the British Library, the American embassy, the Foreign Office, the Washington Post, and many others. “I’m not a great one for conspiracy theories,” he says. But his extensive research has led him to the view that the firm contracted to run the scheme, Capita, is “definitely a front for MI5” and is “out to take over the world”.

Inspired by the fuel protesters, Jim set up a website, hoping to recruit a team of camera saboteurs. “Well, you just burn the cameras down, don’t you? Or you can also use a disc cutter, that’d work. There’s also another way, that’s with home-made explosives. You take a drainpipe, fill it full of weedkiller and sugar, strap it to the post, detonate, and you’re done. I mean, you will do a fair bit of bird for it, obviously. But it can be done.” He pauses, sounding torn. “Obviously, I wouldn’t really do it. But it would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?”

Jim puts the limited success of his website down to competition from other sites. The internet has played by far the most important role in this movement – and is well suited to it because, like motorists, the web is an individualistic community, unfamiliar with collective action.

For all their energy, the campaigners have convened only one public meeting so far. It is not just that they are strangers to one another; they are strangers to campaigning.

“Oh no, I’m a serial non-joiner, I don’t get involved,” says Tony Vickers. “I’ve never felt angry enough or compelled enough to argue about anything else in my life.” Catherine Crawley has always worked in marketing and PR; “This is quite a mad new world for me.” None of them says they voted for Ken – nor for anybody else. “I’m not what you’d call political,” offers Jim.

Asked about their solutions to congestion, the answers are mostly disappointing. There are the usual pleas for more investment in public transport, more consultation, more time. Class Law is specific about reductions for the poorly paid but, on the whole, the charge’s opponents are not strong on alternatives – nor overly preoccupied by the question. But then, for many, their motivation is not really a practical matter. In the time Jim has spent complaining, he could have got a part-time job and earned a year’s charges. In fact, no one I spoke to is facing the prospect of having to pay the charge every day. So why do they care so much?

“I wondered myself about that for a long time – why does it make me so angry?” considered Vickers. “I analysed it, and I understood in the end. I don’t love my car; it’s basically an appliance. But what I do love is my freedom of mobility. I feel the same way about that as I do my freedom of speech or freedom to vote.”

Congestion charging seems to touch the same raw nerve as the euro, rousing dark conspiracy theories and a full-blooded, if hazy, cry for civil liberties and democracy. “This isn’t about traffic jams – it’s a lot deeper than that. This is social engineering.” Ken is not a democratically elected mayor, but a “Marxist dictator”. When the charge comes into force, Londoners must make a stand and take to the streets – “just like in the Blitz”.

“I’m 37 years old,” Jim explains. “When I die, I can look back on my life and say, this man fought the poll tax. I mean, the congestion charge.”