End of the road for national pricing?

The Daily Telegraph is reporting that plans for a national road charging scheme are being quietly buried or ‘back burnered’ in an expression that does damage to the English language. I gave two speeches on the subject last week to conferences and I am in no doubt that this is correct. Ruth Kelly, the still relatively new transport secretary, has barely mentioned the subject since arriving at Great Minster House, allowing the opposition to build up even more momentum.
The Telegraph uses the calculation that road pricing would cost £1 30 per mile, the same figure that was used on the infamous Downing Street website petition which attracted a staggering 1.8m signatures. In fact, this was a complete fiction. No such detailed work had ever been carried out and there was never any clear idea of how much driving would cost when the scheme was introduced.
This is all incredibly depressing for several reasons. First, it shows that reasoned debate can so easily be hijacked by uninformed campaigners with a vested interest who will do anything, including tell fibs, to derail a policy initiative. Secondly, it is clear that road pricing or some version of it is essential as a way of reducing the insatiable demand for road space, the only ‘good’ in our society still allocated by the Soviet method of queueing. Thirdly, no alternative is being offered as a way of tackling climate change, the biggest problem facing the world today.
The government has tried to export the risk of implementing a national scheme by persuading local authorities, with big dollops of money through the Transport Innovation Fund, to introduce local charging projects, but they have all run into trouble, not least because there has been no national champion to help create the sort of climate in which it would be possible to persuade local people to support a scheme.
If the Telegraph is right – and I suspect it is – much of the blame must go to Alistair Darling, who, for no good reason, ditched a lorry road user charging scheme that was popular with the road haulage industry because it would have resulted in a level playing field between British and foreign trucks, who currently often arrive with full tanks and pay no tax. Darling, the ultimate ‘play safe’ politician, got it completely wrong and essentially stopped what would have been a major test of the technology and a way of softening up public opinion. As I have mentioned in a previous post, it’s not surprising that his inadequacies are gradually being exposed in No 11. Just look at the furore he has created with his capital gains tax plan.

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