The school holidays earlier this month reminded me how easy Stadt Zürich is to drive through and park in when a good percentage of the population is away congesting the ski pistes. In central London they now have this 'holiday effect' year round.

In February 2003 London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, introduced his 'Congestion Charge' for traffic amid a hail of criticism and fears that it would cripple business within the charge area and punish the motoring public who simply wanted to drive into central London to spend their hard-earned cash or conduct their legitimate business.

To fully understand these fears, we first need to know a little about Ken Livingstone. He first came to notoriety in the Thatcher era as the radical left-wing leader of the Greater London Council and was quickly dubbed "Red Ken" by the tabloid press. His policies such as reducing bus and underground fares and increasing real estate taxes; declaring London a nuclear-free zone and inviting members of the political wing of the IRA to London, were a thorn in the side of the then Conservative government and too close to Downing Street for comfort. He particularly annoyed Margaret Thatcher by posting the rising UK unemployment figures in large numbers on the roof of City Hall. Thatcher's recourse was to shut down the Council.

After Tony Blair was elected he reinstituted the Greater London Council and backed his chosen Labour candidate as Mayor. Ken Livingstone stood as an independent against Blair's candidate and won. Blair promptly threw Livingstone out of the Labour Party.

Ken Livingstone stated in an interview with The Times newspaper in 1999 "I hate cars. If I ever get any powers again I’d ban the lot." So understandably his plans for a Congestion Charge were greeted with some trepidation.

The plan itself is bold and simple. In a relatively small area of central London totaling 22 square kilometers 180 cameras were installed and large white letter 'C's for Congestion in a red circle were painted on the road. Between 07.00 and 18.30 Monday to Friday every vehicle entering the zone is photographed and the number plate automatically compared by computer to records on a databank. Drivers pre-pay the daily fee of fr.12 on the Internet, by SMS, telephone or at shops. Paying after entering the zone costs fr.24, as long as it is paid by midnight on the day of entry. Any motorist who has not paid the charge by midnight that night is fined fr.93.-. After 14 days this rises to fr.187.- and after 28 days to fr.280.-.

Exemptions to the charge include bicycles, motorcycles, disabled drivers, taxis, all public transport, breakdown and emergency services and the military, and dual-fuel or electric vehicles.

The central London area within the zone is small, but important. Only 136,000 of London's 7 million inhabitants live there, but the financial centre and important shopping areas, like Oxford Street and Regent Street are within the zone. Ken Livingstone put a positive spin on the results after the first year declaring that traffic had been cut by 18% and delays were down 30% with 30,000 more people using buses. His opponents were quick to point out that it did not raise the fr.420 million predicted; instead it runs at a loss with revenue at fr.159 million for the 12 months.

Livingstone is adamant that his Congestion Charge was not meant to make money but to reduce the use of private cars and increase the use of public transport, cleaner vehicles, bicycles and motor bikes resulting in faster, less polluting and more predictable journeys. In this respect he has been successful. However, shops, restaurants and businesses in the zone have had their sales reduced, some claim to the point of closure.

London was reaching a state of total gridlock with the average speed of traffic at only 14.3 kph, clearly some sort of radical solution was urgently needed. Whether the Congestion Charge is the answer is debatable. For a start, the area around the zone is more congested than ever. And it does nothing to address the poor status and condition of public transport in Britain's capital. Even so, a number of British cities are considering introducing a similar charge.

The basic problem is that the charge is unfair: like Robin Hood in reverse, it hits the poor and benefits the rich. With central London car-park charges running at fr.60.- a day, an addition fr12.- for the Congestion Charge is small - especially when the charge can be claimed as a business expense. Many business people are delighted to find they can now move about and park in central London.

It is the kind of scheme that Zürich would doubtless be keen to introduce, but be aware, it will not make money, it will cause great resentment, reduce business profits and be of benefit only to rich car owners.