Road pricing: can we avoid a political pile-up?

Transport expert Christian Wolmar looks at the implications of road pricing schemes for local authorities.

The London congestion charge is widely perceived as a success but no other local authority has even presented a fully developed scheme, let alone implemented one. Far from opening the floodgates, so far only one street in Durham has been tolled. Councils have shown a marked reluctance to follow the Mayor of London’s example.

The Mayor of London was given unprecedented power under the Local Government Act 2000, when it handed over control of most aspects of transport in the capital. This enabled him to introduce a system, even in the face of opposition from councils such as the London Borough of Westminster. Moreover, since he was elected for a four-year term, he could proceed with the scheme, albeit quickly, without having to face the electorate.

Outside London on the other hand, most major conurbations do not have mayors. Even in those that do, transport is the responsibility of local councils. They face annual partial elections so implementing a controversial measure, especially in the face of opposition in the local press and from the motoring lobby, would be risky.

A councillor in Birmingham confided how difficult it is even to get a bus priority measure through in the face of local hostility. This shows that Livingstone was in a much stronger position than his local authority counterparts outside the capital.

Nevertheless, the extent to which Livingstone showed political courage on the congestion charge issue is frequently underestimated. His political advisers all counselled caution given the vociferous campaign in the ‘Evening Standard’ and the fact that the scheme was implemented in February 2003, just over a year before he had to face the electorate.

The Government has announced it wants to see a national road-charging scheme introduced within a decade. It has been so frustrated at the lack of progress outside the capital that it has launched the Transport Innovation Fund. This aims to support local authorities that are seeking to introduce transport schemes that “demand management measures such as road pricing with modal shift and better bus services”.

There is big money available. The Government is promising £290 million in the first year (2008-09) rising to more than £2.5 billion by the middle of the next decade. This is a substantial proportion of total transport investment. It is the only major source of new funding, which suggests the extent to which the Government sees road pricing as a key component in its future transport policy.

Already a small amount of funding, approximately £7 million, has been allocated for studies involving the development of schemes, which must include a road pricing element. The money has gone to seven different authorities or groups of councils. The Government stresses however that the allocation does not mean they will necessarily get backing from the fund for any eventual scheme. A total of £18 million is available to pay for these studies.

The fact that several allocations were made to groups of councils working together, such as Bristol and neighbouring authorities, highlights another difficulty; the boundaries of local authorities do not fit into a natural ‘travel to work’ area. This means that councils of different political complexions have to work together, making the chances of implementing a widely accepted scheme even more difficult.

The other five councils were Cambridgeshire County Council; Durham County Council for the city of Durham; Greater Manchester; Shropshire County Council for Shrewsbury; and Tyne and Wear. The Government has invited the seven successful authorities, along with Transport for London (TfL) and Cardiff County Council, to join the Road Pricing Local Liaison Group. This will develop a consistent approach to road pricing covering technical standards, design and scheme appraisal.

For example, in the West Midlands local authorities have joined together to produce a study that will “produce options for tackling congestion and recommendations on next steps”. Most important, the study will also examine ways of building a consensus within the area by “engaging the public, business and pressure groups and politicians”. The councils recognise that “any solutions will only work if they have wide support”.

Indeed, public support is the main obstacle and the key question is whether to go to the electorate in advance of a scheme or risk, as Livingstone did, implementing the charge and then being tested at the ballot box later.

In Edinburgh a three-to-one majority defeated a proposed scheme last year, with even non-motorists reportedly voting heavily against it. The experience of Edinburgh suggests that getting local voters to support a new tax is nigh on impossible.

The main opposition in the Scottish capital seems to have stemmed from the fact that promised improvements to public transport and roads would not be introduced immediately. The scheme itself meanwhile would have been implemented straightaway.

Moreover, a referendum process can lead to so many concessions being made to push a scheme through that it does not meet its primary objective – reducing traffic by making driving in city centres more expensive.

Technology is often presented as another major obstacle to implementation but in fact political will and clear objectives are far more important.

In Germany a lorry road-user charging scheme for all motorways has been implemented successfully and has now being running for a year. This brings in revenues of £2 billion annually, which suggests that the technology is ready.

The German system uses the GPS system. Hauliers are encouraged to fit onboard units in their vehicles which record motorway mileage and transmit the information via text messages to the central administration. There are also other, more cumbersome, forms of payment available.

Alistair Darling, the transport secretary, scrapped a similar scheme that was going to be introduced in the UK in 2008 on the grounds that it might conflict with an overall scheme that would include cars.

There is a danger that seeking perfection is the enemy of the good. Livingstone pushed through a relatively crude scheme that is expensive to police. Nevertheless it has won him plaudits, and achieved its aims of improving both traffic flow and the environment in central London.

To implement schemes, local authorities will have to be brave in the face of their electorates. They must be prepared to push ahead with relatively simple schemes they can get through quickly, rather than trying to appease all the vested interests. Otherwise London may still stand alone when a national scheme is introduced, despite the millions available in the transport innovation fund.

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