The road less travelled

Congestion charging has suddenly become a mainstream political issue. Before Ken Livingstone’s successful introduction of the charge in London in February, it was a fringe concept that seemed only to interest the Greens and environmentalists, an idea that had been hanging around for a long time but never likely to become policy.

The success of London’s scheme has changed that. Suddenly, congestion charging is all the rage. A procession of foreign dignitaries from as far afield as Japan, the US, France, Germany and Sweden, to name a just a few, drop in to pay homage to Ken Livingstone, eager for a few baubles of information about the scheme to see whether they can implement it in their cities. Derek Turner, who introduced the scheme for Transport for London has gone off to become a full time consultant and Capita, which manages the scheme, stands to make a lot of money through marketing the concept elsewhere.

The intellectual case for congestion charging has become almost universally accepted. The Commons Transport Select Committee earlier this year concluded: ‘The only effective way of achieving a sustained cut in congestion appears to be to introduce some form of road user charging on our busiest roads during peak periods.’ The potential benefits are enormous. In a comprehensive study for the Independent Transport Commission published in June, Transport pricing and investment in England, Stephen Glaister and Dan Graham argue that relatively inexpensive targeted road pricing would reduce congestion by 9 per cent and higher charges would result in a 19 per cent decrease. The authors argue that such charges could be introduced either in a revenue neutral way by transferring existing taxes or as an additional source of revenue.

Either way, the benefits are enormous and such a scheme would reduce the ever-growing pressure for more roadbuilding. Road charging, they say, would bring roads policy in line with other areas of the economy by ‘for the first time [making] the connections between demand, price, investment revenues and capital funding, something that is taken for granted in every other field of industrial activity.’ Possibly the only downside is that motorists will be encouraged to drive on lesser-used rural roads, disturbing the bucolic idyll.

Even Alistair Darling, the transport secretary, who sat on the fence for so long over the scheme, is gradually embracing the concept of road charging, though he refuses to give the London scheme his full endorsement since Livingstone left the Labour party to stand as an independent. Darling conceded at a road seminar in June that building ourselves out of the congestion problem was not a solution. Instead, better use of the existing road space was the way forward and particularly ‘that in order to deal with the pressures over the next 20-30 years, we ought to look at the opportunities that are now being presented to us with new technology…And pricing for roads is just one of those matters that I think we need to look at.’

Road pricing, therefore, is now firmly on the transport route map, to use the current cliché, but does this mean that a host of local authorities across Britain are quickly dusting off schemes and preparing to implement them? Well, surprisingly, the answer is ‘no’. The reasons lie in the political structures in the UK and, in particular, the absence of strong local government.

In order to understand why progress is likely to be slow, David Begg, the chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport, says you have to look at the amazingly fortuitous set of circumstances that led to the creation of the London scheme. It was, he says, five years ago it would have been ‘a 500-1 bet that by 2003 we would be where we are now’.

First, he says, the introduction of a congestion scheme required legislation and it was only a minister as powerful as John Prescott who could push it through during Labour’s first term, given that it was a measure likely to attract bad publicity and antagonise the powerful motorists’ lobby. The key point was the revenue had to be hypothecated (reserved for a specific purpose), allowing local authorities to use it for transport improvements. Otherwise any attempt to introduce schemes – difficult enough, as we see below – would have been scuppered right at the outset because of local political opposition.

Even with the legislation available, Begg argues that it took the creation of a London government, together with the election of an Independent mayor to ensure the scheme could be introduced. The boroughs could never have introduced such a controversial idea. Moreover, had Labour’s Frank Dobson won the election, he would have held back from bringing in the charge by concerns, from Labour’s political HQ, that it would reflect badly on the party as a whole. Begg sums up: ‘All seven of Livingstone’s political advisers were against the introduction of the charge. He had to go for Kennedy’s maxim that “policy should come before politics” and it was noticeably his policy people, such as Bob Kiley, rather than his political ones, who pushed it through’.

The trouble is that similar conditions do not exist in other local authorities. There is not a strong tradition of local government where councillors feel brave enough to adopt policies that may not go down well immediately with the electorate. At a meeting recently in Birmingham, a leading local councillor said that it had taken years to push through minor traffic reduction measures in his ward and any attempt to do anything more broadly ‘could cost me my seat’. The fact that there are annual elections means it is even more difficult for councils to think in the long term.

Moreover, the structures are not robust enough to prevent short term political considerations overriding the long term interests of local people and the environment. Take Bristol where the Liberal Democrats campaigned fiercely against the proposal by Labour to create a city centre cordon that will monitor vehicles, using electronic tagging to charge £5 for entry by 2007. While the LibDems claimed that they were supportive of the concept generally, they argued for a more sophisticated scheme using satellite global positioning (GPS) technology but Labour argued, with some justification, that this was a way of stalling. In fact, the LibDems gained enough seats at the recent election to make the council hung and now the parties are negotiating on the future of the idea.

There is, too, the difficulty faced by councils which do not cover the whole of their local travel to work areas. In Edinburgh, nine authorities are having to work together to create a scheme and that is proving troublesome. The idea is for a two zone scheme with an inner and outer cordon, the outer one operating only in peak hours and using similar technology to the London one. There is talk of a referendum next year, but supporters, like David Begg, himself a former transport convenor in the town, recognise they face an uphill task.

Progress is painfully slow in other British cities, too. Nottingham has ideas for a workplace charging scheme, which would mean employers £150 having to pay per car park space. However, although announced a couple of years ago, the plan is currently being put out for consultation and then faces another self-imposed hurdle, an enquiry by a tribunal of experts. Already, though, opposition is mounting with fears that the scheme will merely encourage employers to shift to nearby Leicester or Derby. However, if the plan overcomes all these obstacles, and obtains approval from the Transport Secretary, it could be in operation by April 2005.

There are two barriers cited by opponents of congestion charging, the technology and civil liberties. While neither pose insuperable problems, both are used as political weapons. The technology, in fact, is well advanced. Simple entry point schemes are easy to operate using simple technology that can easily take credit off a card inserted into a dashboard device. As long ago as 1994, John MacGregor, the then transport minister, visited Oslo to look at the boundary tolling scheme with the idea of introducing similar concepts in the UK. The fact that nothing has happened at a national level in the intervening decade shows that the problems are political rather than practical.

The London scheme uses basic camera technology, involving the photographing of number plates, and this has proved remarkably effective. However, any more sophisticated idea, particularly one involving several different levels of charge, would require a system based on GPS. And that’s where the civil liberties issue comes in, with concerns that Big Brother will know all the movements of the 25 million motorists. Supporters of congestion charging argue that the civil liberties concern is a red herring. As a spokesman for the Commission for Integrated Transport put it, ‘you don’t have to record where anybody has gone, merely what mileage they have done on roads in each category of charging. Their spouse won’t necessarily know that they have been somewhere they shouldn’t have been.’ Indeed, the data collected for the London scheme is destroyed daily, once the non-paying numbers have been extracted.

In Leeds, a variety of technologies using volunteers to test out road side equipment for a year from the autumn, but that does not mean the city will eventually introduce a scheme. Given that no local authority – with the exception of Durham’s whose successful tiny one street scheme predated the London one by a couple of months – is set to follow the lead of London, largely, as Begg stresses, because of the lack of power of councils, then it is at the national level that road congestion is likely to become a major force.

It is, therefore, on the national level that we have to look for progress and there are two important forthcoming events that will raise the profile of the issue. First, in January next year, Britain’s first tolled motorway opens, the M6 toll road, the new name for the Birmingham Northern Relief road, that is expected to reduce congestion on the busiest part of the M6 where speeds average just 17MPH at peak times. Payment, unlike other congestion charge systems, will be able to be made at a staffed toll booth, as well as with electronic tags. Car drivers will pay £3 per journey, vans £6 and lorries £11 with a £1 discount between 11pm and 6am.

Clearly, the road, agreed by the last Tory government will be seen as a testing ground for future schemes although, given the huge opposition and the fact that there is very little room for entirely new road schemes in the UK, it is unlikely that many other will follow and even then, given the long gestation, they will not open much before the Twenties. However, it will be an important test of whether the concept is acceptable.

Lorry user charging is the other radical innovation. In April, after consultation, the Government published a report on ‘modernising the taxation of the haulage industry’ which sets out a clear timetable for charging all hauliers per mile they drive. This will be tax neutral in that the new scheme will replace existing taxes and will make motorway users pay more than those on other roads. The initial target date for introduction is Spring 2006 but there are a lot of technical and administrative hurdles to overcome in order to meet that relatively short deadline.

Taken together, these developments mean that gradually, the days of free road space are drawing in. This must be universally welcomed since as with anything offered free, demand will always outstrip supply. This is, at last, being recognised by the government which, despite its terror of a motorist backlash, is gradually acknowledging, that the case for congestion charging is unanswerable. But while charging is clearly the future, that future is slow in coming. The best guess, from Begg, is that some sort of national scheme will be in force by ‘2015, rather than 2010, at the earliest’. In the meantime, there is little to stop congestion getting worse and worse.