Framing London’s “congestion tax”

If you want to drive a car into central London during business hours, you have to pay: a hefty £8 ($13.05, 9.27 €, as per today’s exchange rates) a day, or even more if you pay late. This payment is called the congestion charge (in official documents often capitalized), is managed by Transport for London, and explicitly serves the goal of lowering the volume motorized traffic by making motorists [BrE term] pay for the privilege of driving on streets the use of which by too many cars imposes a high cost on all central London’s permanent and transient denizens. As a payment for the use of a specific set of roads, the congestion charge is supposed to be understood as a type of toll — a fee for a service.

Map of London's congestion charge zone
Map of London's congestion charge zone
Countries whose embassies refuse to pay the congestion charge
Countries that refuse to pay the congestion charge for their embassy staff, 11/2008

Now the effectiveness of the congestion charge in actually lowering traffic into central London is debatable — and hotly being debated — but even its detractors tend to call it by its official name. Not so the US embassy’s representative, who — as cited in today’s Guardian — continues to refer to it as the “congestion tax”.

That’s a nice case of framing we’re encountering here. The embassy’s stance is simply that, if the charge is actually a local tax, the embassy doesn’t have to pay. So they call it a tax instead: 

“The mayor [of London] had hoped that Obama’s new representative in London, Louis Susman, who was sworn in two weeks ago and arrived in the capital today, would signal a change of approach due to the new administration’s green credentials.

But a spokesman for the US embassy confirmed that Washington’s position had not changed. […] The US embassy spokesman said: “Our policy on the congestion tax is a long-standing policy decided on by Washington. The US government’s position is that this a tax and therefore is prohibited by various treaties.”

TfL and the UK government, in contrast, liken the charge to paying or a toll road or bridge, something UK diplomats in the US are held to do.

The US embassy is not alone in this, although with a totted-up £3,446,420 in charges and fines by now (according to the Guardian article linked above) the worst offender among the quarter of London’s foreign diplomatic missions who just don’t pay up. A 9 month old BBC News article lists the non-payers, and I’m sad to see that Germany, too, is among them.