Adventures in Ethical Consumerism

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Participatory democracy and the congestion charge

I think referenda are great. I love the idea of moving towards a more participatory form of democracy, as opposed to the representative variety we are used to.

It was a great privilege, eight years ago, to take part in the referendum that secured Scotland's (quasi-) independence from London.

Now, here in Edinburgh, we are getting the chance to vote for, or against, the introduction of congestion charging as part of the Labour council's grand plan to improve the city's transport situation.

The result is expected tomorrow, and early indicators suggest the overall response will be negative.

I've been in favour of congestion charging ever since I saw with my own eyes the difference in central London after the £5 daily charge was introduced there. The proposal here has been for a smaller charge of only £2 per day, yet opposition to the idea has been overwhelming. The usual reasons have been given: another tax on car drivers is too much, and businesses in the city centre will suffer.

It makes me sad. I believe car drivers deserve to be taxed off the roads. I really believe that, especially when I am walking, cycling, or waiting for a bus and I can taste the poisonous fumes in the air as they pass through my mouth and into my lungs. I do not benefit from somebody else's car, yet it may help speed me towards an early grave. If someone is to be able to sit alone in a car that can carry five, listening to their favourite CD while I get sick off their emissions then yes, they should pay towards making things better. Why not?

I also think that the kinds of businesses that are obsessed with profits and nothing else should not be welcome in our city centres. If they are not prepared to accept some responsibility for the wellbeing of people and the city, I would be happy to see them shut up shop and move to the outskirts, where the car drivers can flock to them and collectively choke on each other's gasses.

So I voted Yes to congestion charging.

There has been a lot said here in Edinburgh about the transport proposals and the referendum itself. The council has been accused of trying to manipulate voters, and really the whole process has been a bit of a farce. Despite trying to do the right thing, the council may well end up with nothing but a large bill to pay after all their efforts to win public approval.

I feel the lessons to be learned from this are important, though. Certainly it has become clear that it is no simple administrative matter to hold a public referendum, and it is perhaps impossible to expect the majority of voters to actually know about the issues they are being asked for their opinion on.

Public cluelessness could be the reason if we hear tomorrow that the No vote is the winner. Or it could just be that there are more people using cars than buses in Edinburgh, and they're only thinking about themselves.

Much more information about Edinburgh City Council's transport strategy can be found here.


Today I took part in another form of participatory democracy: an online public consultation from DEFRA, the London government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Through the Citizen Space website, they are holding a consultation on how best to tackle climate change. This type of thing is a great example of how the internet is helping to change the way democracy works by providing a direct link between you and the people who make decisions on your behalf.

We're used to being able to write letters and attend constituancy surgeries, but a national consultstion such as this would have meant far too much wasted paper and person-hours for it to be feasable in the days before the world wide web. We can expect to see a lot more of this kind of thing, and I would urge anyone with an interest in democracy to check this out.

The consultaion serves a second purpose in that it helps to inform people about what is happening, including information about what the goverment is doing, and what they are thinking about doing.

Even if you are not interested in democracy, it's still worth a look so you can play the excellent game of Polar Bear Parking. The opportunity is not to be missed!


  • I love congestion charging and think its a genius solution. I don't have to pay it, of course but I would in an instant if I could get my wheelchair on all the buses.

    By Blogger birdychirp, at 9:50 PM  

  • I also like the exemptions for electric and hybrid vehicles -- encouraging green motoring!

    By Blogger beev, at 12:45 AM  

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