Road pricing is difficult balancing trick for rural areas

Nothing raises the hackles of most motorists more than the prospect of paying more to drive. This was well demonstrated by the extraordinary level of support for the anti-road pricing petition on the Downing Street website. The petition, which attracted nearly 1.8 million signatures – far more than any other – sent a clear message to Government that scrapping planned vehicle tracking and road pricing is the only way forward.

The petition, though, was based on a falsehood – that there is actually a firm policy on how road pricing will work. The site, which elicited the emails suggested there would be a price of £1.30 per mile and an on board tag that would cost £200. On that basis it was hardly surprising that people signed up in droves since the suggestion was that this would be in addition to existing taxation. In fact, there is no such precise plan and the real situation is far more complex..

Road pricing is currently just a clever idea. It has been suggested because it is obvious Britain’s roads are becoming ever more congested and, as the anti-roads protests of the 1980s and 1990s showed, there is no appetite to cover over more of Britain with concrete ribbons. Therefore, rationing what is currently a free commodity, road space, is a logical idea that can fit in with political ideology of both left and right. While there is a broad agreement among policy makers that the current situation is untenable and that fuel price taxation is too blunt an instrument to influence motorists’ behaviour, there are widely differing views on what to do about it.

The road ahead

On the face of it, road pricing seems eminently sensible. The core of the idea is that using more congested roads would cost more, and therefore encourage motorists to time their journeys at off-peak times, or to use alternative routes. To work, though, this would require sophisticated technology based on satellite signals. This is already available and in use in Germany where all lorries have to pay for the use of the autobahn. The vast majority have been fitted with in-cab devices that measure distance travelled and send data to a central control point for charging. The fact that the data is kept separate from government and the scheme’s managers even refused to provide data to help in a murder case involving a lorry should allay fears about civil liberties, which have also been raised by opponents.

As the huge support for the petition demonstrated, the main barrier to introducing the scheme, therefore, is not technical but political. Both the previous Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, and the current incumbent, Douglas Alexander, have spoken out strongly in favour of road pricing but they always stress that it is ten years off, far longer any ministerial career in the Department of Transport, or indeed most others. That means road pricing is largely at the ‘blue skies’ thinking stage, with civil servants drawing up various schemes, rather than being anywhere near implementation.

There is some cross party support, which shows that politicians are beginning to realise that continuing as we are is, as they like saying, ‘not an option’.  Alistair Carmichael, the Libdem spokesman on transport, who represents Orkney & Shetland – one of the most rural constituencies in Britain– is supportive, not least because he thinks it would help his constituents. He told Countryside Voice: ‘Fuel duty and VAT punish people living in rural areas. In those areas, the private car is the most environmentally-friendly way of travel since you can’t run public transport to isolated communities and therefore motorists there should pay less tax’.

The Tories are more equivocal. They have not ruled out road pricing but their transport spokesman, Chris Grayling, is sceptical about the feasibility of a national scheme encompassing the whole country arguing that it was not ‘realistically achievable in the near future’. Grayling has a point because ministers have failed to give a clear ‘road map’ to a national road pricing scheme encompassing all 26 million vehicles on Britain’s roads.

To tax or not to tax?

The idea so far has been to encourage local authorities to develop schemes with the help of funding through a Transport Infrastructure Fund specifically aimed at those councils who are implementing road pricing. However, groups of local authorities in major conurbations like Manchester and Birmingham have published plans which would require substantial quantities of money upfront in order to improve local public transport before implementing a local congestion charge. In short, they want voters to notice an improvement in public transport before implementing a pricing scheme likely to be seen as unpopular electorally.

London, where the congestion charge was introduced four years ago and the recent extension passed off without too much fuss, is exceptional. It is run by a Mayor with strong powers and moreover has the best public transport, by miles, in the whole country. Its situation is not comparable with other regions. The difficulties of convincing the electorate to support the idea were demonstrated all too strongly when Edinburgh residents voted by 3 to 1 against a very modest plan in February 2005. Since then local politicians have been reluctant to test the water.

Partly, the opposition is generated by mistrust since there has been much political dithering over the most fundamental question: is the idea to raise more money overall from motorists or simply shift the burden of taxation from those using more congested roads to those on emptier ones? Ministers, fearful of giving yet more fuel to the motoring lobby, have given contradictory answers on this point. Experts such as Professor Stephen Glaister of Imperial College point out that while a revenue-neutral scheme would be more politically acceptable to the public, it would deliver far fewer societal benefits. It would not, for example, create a pot of money available for investment in transport alternatives. However, it could greatly reduce the burden of motoring taxation on rural areas as people driving in congested urban areas would pay a far greater proportion of overall motoring taxes.

Of course, road pricing – both in local and regional schemes and across the entire country – might not be good news for the countryside or for people living there. Road pricing would make living in urban areas more expensive and thus some people might be tempted to go and live in the country. Moreover, as these people moved to the country, they would usually end up using their cars more – rural dwellers are generally more car-dependent and have higher car mileages than urban dwellers, given the lack of public transport and the fact that services are more thinly scattered.

Consequently rural roads could become much busier as a result of road pricing. The fact is that traffic has been rising faster on rural roads than anywhere else in recent years. Other motorists may respond to road pricing by detouring around urban areas on lesser-used roads to save money, in effect creating rural rat runs. If a nationwide road pricing scheme were to ramp up the cost of driving between towns and cities on busy motorways, some drivers would divert onto smaller, cheaper A and B roads running through the countryside.

Given that the ministerial attempt to export risk to local councillors has failed so far, road pricing has reached something of an impasse. Ministers still say they are committed, and they are busily negotiating with local authorities in order to get trial schemes established to demonstrate that the scheme could be viable. However, every time the issue is aired in public, opposition seems to gather pace. The idea that a national scheme could be introduced within ten years is looking decidedly optimistic.

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