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Extended congestion charge a ‘hammer blow', say London operators and suppliers

31 July 2020 by

Restaurateur Jeremy King described the price increase and extension of operating times of the congestion charge as yet another "hammer blow" to the hospitality industry.

In June, Transport for London (TfL) brought forward proposals to "temporarily widen the scope and level of the congestion charge" by increasing the daily levy from £11.50 to £15, extending operating hours to 10pm, rather than 6pm, and applying the charge seven-days-a-week, from previously operating on weekdays only.

Since 4 July, when most of the UK emerged from lockdown, London operators within the zone have started to speak out against the impact the extension is having on the sector's recovery.

King, co-founder of Corbin & King, which operates restaurants including the Wolseley, the Delaunay and Fischer's, told The Caterer it was "not the principle, it's the timing of it" adding that he had been told by guests, who would normally have visited at the weekend, that they would not going forward because of the £15 charge.

He said: "It's been imposed on us without any real consultation and at the worst possible time. It's already really fragile in the West End for restaurants and today we've had even more setbacks with the pausing of lockdown easing.

"If people drove to Fischer's, they would have to pay congestion charge – more and more people were saying they couldn't justify crossing the Marylebone Road and paying the £15 tax.

"There are much easier ways to help the transport system. The government is trying to encourage people to come back into central London and there seems to be a conspiracy around being able to do so."

King said the £15 levy was one of the reasons that the group's Covent Garden restaurant Delaunay's would not reopen until September at the earliest, when more people were likely to return to offices. He also added that he had been hearing "a lot of moans" from suppliers.

"The resounding question I'm hearing from suppliers and customers is – who is challenging this? And why now? That's the question. We should do everything in our power to get businesses going," he added.

We should do everything in our power to get businesses going

Atul Kochhar, chef-restaurateur of Kanishka in Mayfair, is similarly opposed to the increased congestion charge, telling The Caterer it added "insult to injury" and was "killing businesses' last hopes of revival."

In June, Michel Roux Jr of Le Gavroche spoke out against the weekend extension in an interview with The Telegraph, saying that the weekends used to be "thriving" with people driving into central London for a snack at a pub or a restaurant because there was no congestion charge.

Operators are not the only businesses suffering, suppliers who are forced to drive into the zone for deliveries have also been hit with the extra cost.

Natalie Chapman, head of urban policy at Logistics UK, told The Caterer she believed there would be "mounting pressure" for TfL to revert to the original hours but expected that the temporary measure was "a stepping stone for permanent change".

She explained: "We think there is a strong case to say that domestic freight vehicles should be exempt from the charge. We have no choice but to use lorries and vans, so it's just a tax on delivery. Companies are very angry about being forced to pay extra to do their job.

"Until recently our drivers were hailed as heroes and essential workers. It seems like people have rather short memories."

She added that the suspension of the charge when the pandemic hit was a "huge help" and a "nod in the right direction". However it was brought back in May and the following month the charge increased and the fleet discount was removed.

Despite delivery companies currently picking up the extra cost, Chapman predicted that ultimately the charges would have to be passed on and would likely impact hospitality operators.

She continued: "We operate on tight margins, so there are only so many increases in costs that can be absorbed.

"To add this cost at a time when businesses are struggling, particularly in the hospitality sector, it's going to take a long time for businesses to rebuild themselves. They need as much support and breathing space to recover."

A TfL spokesperson said that the temporary changes to the congestion charge were "essential to prevent London's recovery from the pandemic from being restricted by cars and congestion".

"Clogged up roads are a major barrier to economic recovery while also disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable.

"Blocked roads push up the costs to business, with unpredictable journey times and deliveries running late."

TfL has said the extension will be kept under review and that any permanent changes to the scheme would require a full consultation.

Photo: Shutterstock

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