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Is Road Pricing the way forward?

Jim Jepps

The transport secretary, Alistair Darling, wants to introduce a pilot road-pricing scheme within two years, to be followed by a nationwide initiative within 10 to 15 years. The price of this will vary according to time of day and particular road but will be up to 1.30 a mile.How much!?! The plan is to cut or abolish road tax and fuel duty - although how this will balance out for your pocket is anyone's guess at the moment.

The UK has the longest commuting time in Europe (and then add the longer working hours, you didn't want to actually see your children did you?) and everyone recognises that the transport system needs a real overhaul because of pollution, inconvenience and the sheer bloody unpleasantness of the current situation - but are New Labour's plans the right approach?

Jenny Jones, Green Party member of the London assembly said "This whole debate on road pricing (Satellite toll plan to make drivers pay by the mile, 5th June), gives the pretence of activity, whilst allowing this generation of Ministers to avoid any of the hard choices." For her, not only is the government saying they are going to do nothing about the problem for at least a decade but it is also a return to the Conservative Party of the eighties when they "embarked upon a futile, multi billion pound attempt to build their way out of congestion. That period ended with road protestors, swampy and the fuel tax escalator,"

She asks "but does it make any sense to reduce fuel taxes in order that gas guzzling 4*4 vehicles can pay almost the same to drive as a mini?" How Green is this policy really?

The Department of Transport's own figures on the general transport situation in the UK, show that in 2003 bus and coach fares in the UK were 34% higher and rail fares 36% higher in real terms than in 1980. Over the same period, the cost of motoring decreased by 9% despite a 7% increase in fuel costs. For a government that is all stick and no carrot the solution is to increase cost of car travel and do nothing about the inflation of public transport fares (and its reliability).

Interestingly a Mori poll found that only 16% of motorists would object to carrying a 'black box' in their car. But is a system to track exactly where you (and your car) are at all times part of a congestion fighting scheme or New Labour's Big Brother policing? What are the wider implications of the scheme and will the technology work anyway? We could find that we've waited around ten, fifteen years for something that never looked that promising in the first place.

Bert Morris, director of the AA Motoring Trust, told BBC News: "The real issue is going to be public acceptance, trust in the government to keep its word over revenue neutrality and actually scrapping fuel tax and road taxes."

Obviously there are also details which could be extremely damaging - like residents of particular areas finding themselves being unduly charged - but more important is that the scheme sets out to become a poll tax on road use and will hit those least able to pay far harder than the richest. Far better to use the carrot of a well organised public transport system that actually gets you from one place to another without loads of hassle or vastly inflated prices to pay for private sector board room wages.

June 2005

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