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U.S. Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle leaves Prime Minister Tony Blair’s residence earlier this month. Tuttle has refused to pay London’s congestion charge, sparking controversy.
U.S. Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle leaves Prime Minister Tony Blair’s residence earlier this month. Tuttle has refused to pay London’s congestion charge, sparking controversy. (AP)

RAF MILDENHALL — There’s a diplomatic row brewing between the U.S. and the United Kingdom over what qualifies as a tax in England’s capital.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone and the Transport for London office have joined forces to jab at U.S. Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle.

Since Tuttle took office last July, the U.S. diplomatic mission has refused to pay the congestion charge for driving within central London. Recently, the escalating bill prompted Livingstone, during a television appearance, to refer to Tuttle as “a chiseling little crook.”

The charge is 8 pounds ($14) a day and is designed to lessen traffic in the city center. The U.S. Embassy is at 24 Grosvenor Square, not far from Piccadilly Circus in central London.

Tuttle, an Orange County, Calif., co-managing partner of Tuttle-Click Automotive Group and personal friend to President Bush, said the congestion charge is a tax, and the embassy is therefore exempt under international diplomatic accords, according to the embassy Web site and the British media.

Transport for London contends the charge is a toll, comparable to what British diplomats pay to drive on American toll highways. It asserts that no diplomatic immunity exists.

So far, the embassy has racked up 225,000 pounds ($394,000) in congestion charges since July 2005, according to Transport for London spokesman Jamie O’Hara. It has also received nearly 1,600 penalty notices since Jan. 1.

“We don’t want to make this political,” O’Hara said. “We have to come to a deal on this.”

A U.S. Embassy spokesman declined to comment on Livingstone’s derogatory comments about Tuttle.

O’Hara said that most embassies cover the charge but acknowledged others such as those of Nigeria, Angola and Sudan also refuse to pay.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman said that both Germany and Switzerland also have refused to pay the congestion charge for its diplomats in London and that Stockholm recently instituted a similar congestion charge but exempted all diplomats.

O’Hara said diplomatic agreements mean the Transport for London office cannot tow the vehicles or clamp the tires as enforcement measures.

“America has the capacity to pay, and we think it should,” O’Hara said.

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