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Foreign embassies drive London mad over unpaid traffic bills

London says it is owed millions of pounds by foreign embassies refusing to pay the congestion charge for driving in the city center. First the US decided not to pay and then many European countries followed suit.

London, Tower bridge

London says the charge is not a tax from which diplomats are exempt

Driving into central London costs the average motorist 8 pounds – just over 9 euros. The congestion charge was introduced in 2003 to cut traffic in the British capital and to raise money for public transport.

Yet even back then the US embassy already decided it wouldn't be paying, claiming the charge was a tax on motorists, and that diplomats were exempt from paying taxes in foreign countries. Other European countries were quick to adapt the same stance, refusing to pay their bills.

"The congestion charge is not a tax as the US embassy is arguing," says Murad Qureshi, Party member of the London Assembly. He says that he hopes European countries like Germany could still be persuaded to pay up.

"It's a charge no different to a toll you would pay on the highways of Europe when you travel by car. And I'd like to think they're more persuadable through our European Union associations."

No policy change with Obama

Buses in London

The congestion charge aims to get people to use public transport rather than drive

Boris Johnson, the new Mayor of London, had hoped the arrival of Barack Obama's new ambassador to the UK, Louis Susman, would see a change of policy on the part of the US, and that this would then encourage other non-paying embassies to follow suit.

But immediately on his arrival in London, Ambassador Susman signaled that this wouldn't be the case, sending the row back to the top of the headlines with new revelations about how much money Transport for London (TFL) says it is owed.

The latest figures show TFL has lost out on 28 million pounds, around 32 million euros, in unpaid congestion charges, and unpaid fines for unpaid congestion charges.

And while the US tops the list, owing well over 3 million pounds - Germany is not far behind, owing over 2 million pounds, or around 2 and a half million euros.

Also on the list of worst offenders are Russia and Japan who both owe over 2 million pounds. In total, more than 50 embassies refuse to pay.

"Well quite simply, I think diplomats should pay up and shut up," Qureshi says. "Londoners have to pay their congestion charge – and if they don't they get bailiffs onto them straightaway. I think diplomats are being treated very nicely and we need to draw it to a conclusion."

Rich countries that refuse to pay

Jenny Jones, a London Assembly member for the Green Party says this is also an environmental issue. A lot of the cars are highly polluting vehicles, worsening air quality and creating traffic, noise and disruption.

A car entering the congestion zone

Embassies owe the TFL millions of pounds

"I really think that it's an embarrassment for those European countries," Jones says. "The United States and those European countries are some of the richest countries in the world and here they are not paying their debts. When you look at other embassies you will find that the poorer countries do pay their debts. Sudan and Ethiopia for instance do pay. It's the richer countries who don't."

The German Embassy declined the request for an interview, instead sending a statement on the matter.

"In accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations diplomatic staff are exempt from all national, regional or municipal taxes. The congestion charge is a tax."

The statement adds that there are no congestion charge free roads in central London that could be used as alternative routes, and that the mission and its staff are not exempt from parking fees and toll charges since these are charges for specific services.

But London may be close to accepting defeat in its battle to see the unpaid bills settled. Transport for London has now abandoned attempts to force the embassies to pay their legal dues, as the amount owed in total grows by over 1 million pounds a month. It's now relying on the Foreign Office to try and bring about a change of policy, with no luck so far.

Author: Olly Barratt (ai)
Editor: Rob Turner

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