DomSez: Road charging

[This post is a syndication of my latest Ruberyvillage DomSez column]

Hi there, and welcome to the new DomSez presented with plenty of new RV orange. The big news today has been the government’s new plans for a road charging scheme, so let’s take a closer look.

As some people have wryly noted, this idea has reached us rather out of the blue. It’s a wide-ranging proposal that doesn’t appear in Labour’s election manifesto, even though the feasibility study was concluded last year and the same minister is still in charge of transport. However, politics is politics, and for the record there were no plans for congestion in the Conservative manifesto either.

I have to admit – my first reaction to seeing the headline ‘Pay-as-you-go’ road charge plan was “wow”. It’s a pretty thankless job, being Minister for Transport. We’re a small crowded island and we like to drive, so the roads are never going to be the most pleasant experience, and public transport has for too long been either forgotten or directly attacked by government. Thatcher famously considered bus users “failures” and Major’s privatisation of the trains was so utterly botched senior Conservative figures have said so themselves. New Labour hasn’t exactly excelled either – with “Two Jags” Prescott and another badly thought out PFI initiative with the London Underground.

However, in their third term, I think Labour may finally have found their boldness to actually do something with transport that will work in the long term. Which is a relief, because something needs to be done. If the prospect of “LA-style gridlock” isn’t bad enough, we’ve got global warming to confront and limited oil reserves that are going to become more and more expensive before running out altogether.

To my mind, ‘pay as you go’ would be fairer than the current system. What Alistair Darling is proposing is to charge different amounts depending on where you are. So drivers in quiet rural areas may pay as little as 2p a mile – and they have the most reasons to be using a car. Public transport is poorest in the countryside, congestion is less so journeys are quicker and less environmentally damaging, and services are often further away.

In contrast, people clogging up motorways or city centres should be paying more, and in return they should get significantly less congestion with faster journeys which, of course, will benefit business in the long run.

For a government that, rightly or wrongly, is so often accused of using ‘stealth taxes’ this proposal seems remarkably brave. These new charges would be open, upfront and honest. They would also been balanced by slashing road and fuel taxes, so while some people may pay more, others will pay less.

But – and it’s a big but – there would be big problems to overcome. The more important would be getting public support for the idea, not easy but at least there can now be a sensible debate. Big technology-inspired government projects also have a history of going over-budget and often just not working as they should. As always, the planning would have to be very carefully done and the roll-out phased in over a decade or two. Which raises the interesting question of which government would actually end up overseeing the change in the end.

We also need to build in incentives to use smaller cars, cleaner fuels, more energy efficient vehicles. And not forgetting not to make driving to work unaffordable, or damaging the tourism industry, or regulating the privacy concerns raised by tracking every car in the country. (Although it’s surprising how paranoid some people will get given the chance.)

My advice for whoever ends up having to sell this policy to the public, should it come to fruition, is to take a leaf out of Ken Livingstone’s book. Whatever you think of it, it has to be a good thing that the London Congestion Charge goes into funding better public transport. Do the same thing nationally, and we could have a world-class train and bus network which would see Britain in good stead while other countries face the same problems that are troubling governments everywhere.

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