With the recent publicity over the outstanding Congestion Charge payments due from embassies in London (see pdf document here), triggered by the arrival of the new US ambassador representing the Obama administration, once again we have to rehearse the arguments why the diplomats should shut up and pay up.

Firstly, and contrary to the claim by the US embassy, the Congestion Charge is clearly a user-charge – not a tax, from which diplomats are exempt under the Vienna Convention on consular relations. The Congestion Charge requires drivers to pay to use a small geographical area in central London during specific hours, and as such it is no different in principle from the charge made to drive along an American toll road, which British and other foreign diplomatic staff in the US are all required to pay.

And let’s not forget that the diplomats who refuse to pay the charge neverthless benefit from its results – not only from the freer movement of traffic in central London but also from the local and global environmental impact of the reduction in CO2, PM10 and NOx levels.

It should be remembered that the US embassy paid the congestion charge for more than two years following its introduction in February 2003. It was only in July 2005, after the charge increased from £5 to £8, that they announced they were not going to pay it any more. Quite how a £3 increase transformed a user-charge into a tax they did not explain.

The refusal of embassies to pay the charge means that Londoners are having to carry the burden of a total of £30 million of embassies’ debts on their shoulders during a recession – over £3 million of which is owed by the US embassy alone. If any of us behaved like that we would have had the bailiffs around a long time ago. l don’t think that’s acceptable at all, and it stretches our hospitality too far.

The US embassy’s refusal to pay the Congestion Charge was exactly the sort of regressive political decision we had come expect under the presidency of George Bush. Now that we have a new administration, which has emphasised its green credentials, particularly in the build-up to the Copenhagen climate change negotiations in December, we expect something different. Hence my letter to President Obama (pdf here) urging him to reverse the decision made under his predecessor.

Everyone in the UK with progressive politics, myself included, greeted the election of President Obama with enthusiasm, hoping that it represented a change in direction for the US. One straightforward way the President can demonstrate to Londoners that his administration has indeed broken with the politics of the Bush period is to instruct the US embassy to start paying the Congestion Charge and clear its outstanding debts to Transport for London. Otherwise this one is not going to go away and will be a continuing source of political embarrassment to the US government. It’s not as though the richest country on the earth can’t afford to pay up.

So President Obama, YES YOU CAN!

Watch BBC London News report here (from 9:52)