President Obama has been urged to order the US Embassy in London to pay the more than £3m of outstanding Congestion Charge fines.
Although the embassy initially paid the charge, this policy was reversed following the appointment Robert Tuttle as US Ambassador in 2005. Since then the Embassy has amassed almost £3.5m in unpaid charges and penalties and has consistently refused to enter dialogue with Transport for London over the debts.
It recently emerged that TfL has passed the issue of the unpaid fines to the Foreign Office to resolve, meanwhile Mayor of London Boris Johnson has been urged to withhold planning consent for a proposed new US Embassy building until the debt is cleared. At present the new building cannot be given consent as it fails to comply with the London Plan, the planning framework which sets out the Mayor’s guidance for developments within the capital.
Labour Assembly Member Murad Qureshi says: “Diplomats the world over are granted many special privileges in their host country, but these charges and fines are not covered under any such arrangement. The US Embassy should set an example by acting responsibly and coughing up like everyone else.”
Earlier this year Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon called on new Ambassador Louis B. Susman to show to Londoners that things really have changed under Barack Obama’s new US administration” by paying all outstanding PCNs and agreeing to pay the charge.
Qureshi has already written to to the US President calling on him to ensure the Embassy reverts to its previous agreement to pay the charge. The full text of his letter reads:
Dear President Obama
US Embassy’s non-payment of Congestion Charge in London
I feel it is only right to bring to your attention a matter which has cast an unnecessary shadow over relations between the US Embassy to Britain and the people of London since 2003, in the hope that you will reverse a mean-spirited decision taken under your predecessor’s administration by the former US Ambassador to the UK, not to honour the Embassy’s financial obligations to their host city with regard to the cost of driving in central London.
In response to rising pollution levels and near-gridlock levels of congestion in Central London, the previous Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, bravely introduced a radical, controversial and highly successful daily congestion charge for cars entering a specified Central London zone. The Mayor did not seek to bar cars from London, merely to discourage their use in the most congested and most polluted area of the city. This charge was set initially at £5 per vehicle per day and was later increased to £8 in order to maintain its deterrent effect.
Thanks to our good public transport system, many Londoners choose not to own a car, and indeed for many there is simply no need – especially for those whose main journey is a commute from the suburbs into central London.
Mr Tuttle steadfastly refused to pay London’s congestion charge, wrongly claiming it to be a tax from which foreign diplomats are exempt. Many here feel this was an ignoble attitude from the Ambassador of the wealthiest country on earth, and one which has set an unfortunate tone, and a poor example for other Embassies to follow.
As at 3rd June 2009, the US Embassy owes the Mayor’s transport department, Transport for London, £3,478,200 in unpaid charges and late payment fines, and is by far the worst offender for non-payment. This sum is considerably higher than the amounts other Embassies of far lower status than the USA owe to Londoners.
I know you are seeking to introduce new era of international relations with your Presidency, one based on decency and mutual respect, and in that spirit I respectfully ask you to advise the new Ambassador to London of the longer benefits of adopting a more honourable stance with regard to complying with local expectations. Please issue a Presidential decree that the new Ambassador should reverse Mr Tuttle’s decision and ensure that the US Embassy in London pays the congestion charge in future, and repays the outstanding charges to make good the errors of the past.
Murad Qureshi AM
LONDON ASSEMBLY MEMBER